To Dogmatize A Mystery
Amanda Smith
[as published in the June, 2001 edition]

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Amanda Smith"
Subject: Re: Admiration
Date: Saturday, June 23, 2001 2:04 AM

If I can only feel it, I will say that it's a feeling, but I can say no more than that and still remain truthful. I certainly would not go about telling others that there was more to it than "I feel something." Likewise, if I cannot explain something, I have no business telling others that I do have an explanation for it. Had everyone honored these principles, I suspect there'd be little if any religion in the world.

I don't think I "feel" anything along the lines as you have described -- at least I don't explain them the way you suggest, when you report that these "feelings" are what led you to become a Christian. I have felt the rainbow of human emotions. These include feelings or sensations which some have called a "longing for God" or "that God-shaped hole." However, I still have no reason to think that there is any such thing as a God. Besides, the existence of these feelings can have any number of naturalistic explanations. So I continue to say only what I can say in all honesty: these are feelings and I cannot go any further than that. Just because I don't know the answer to a mystery does not justify me writing the word God in the answer blank. To be able to say, "I found God," I would need to do just that -- find God -- not just stumble upon an unsolved mystery or experience unexplained feelings.

My problem with the traditional Christian explanation is that its sources are way too flawed to be worthy of my trust. If the Gospel accounts can be shown to be in error about things that we can test or verify (such as science, history, geography, or even the Gospels' very primitive concepts of human morality, such as the denigration of women, the advocacy of human slavery, and the teaching about rewards and punishments in an afterlife -- which is not morality at all), then I have no business trusting the Gospels' "explanation" for a vague, otherwise unexplainable "feeling."

So, since I have no reliable source to explain someone's "feeling," I will continue to refuse to attribute objective reality or philosophical validity to those people's reports. They are someone's feelings, and that's all that I can say about them -- for me to go further would be dishonesty on my part.

Nevertheless I will not denigrate anyone for thinking they have an explanation for their own feelings. If that person urges me to go along with their explanation, I will provide the above response. It's one thing for someone to announce to me that "I feel something" or even, "I feel something and I think thus and so is a valid explanation for my feelings." ("Well, thank you for sharing that with me!") But when someone reports their feelings to me and then urges me to go along with their explanation, they have submitted a claim to the public forum, and my obligation is to scrutinize it and see if it is worthy of my assent.

This is only crucial when private religious feelings are used to justify changes in public policy. For this reason, I have gone to great lengths to discredit the Christian religion. Had the Christians kept their religion a private affair, I would have noth-ing to say about it. But so many of them throughout history have insisted that the rest of us give lip-service to their private religious views, to support the propagation of those views at public expense, and even to make obedience to religious commandments an obligation for all under penalty of law. When they try to install policy which can be justified only by religion, then it becomes immoral for me not to respond with all the resources I can muster.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Amanda Smith"
Subject: Re: Wow! You replied!
Date: Sunday, June 24, 2001 2:39 AM

No. Would that all who write to us were in your league.

As I have stated many times, I respect private religious belief and private expressions of religion. At Positive Atheism, we presuppose that all theists have (or think they have) valid reasons for believing the way they do. Only when they enter into the public discussion by making their religious views the subject of an empirical claim do we even have a response -- and that response rightly remains in the form of a philosophical discussion. But when their religion becomes intrusive (either by denigrating us for not going along with them or by trying to legislate their religion as law) does our response become outright opposition. The latter almost always involves dogmatic religion, where a so-called truth is said to be "written in stone by the very finger of God."

I have also discussed at length the "ineffable god" which is most aptly described in the Upanishads of Hinduism as "Not this, not this -- beyond all that is cognizable" or "From which, along with the mind, words turn back." The only thing about this nonverbal "nondescription" of what some call "God" is that there is really nothing to say about it. This "faith" (if one would call it faith, I don't know what to call it) is private and cannot be described, and the existence of its object ("God") can neither be proved nor disproved. Shri K. G. Mashruwala wondered why believers in such a "God" even try to talk about their deity:

Ordinarily, this should lead one to expect that if God was beyond human (rather, mental) comprehension, thereshould be very little literature about Him. The seer should say simply, "I feel the presence of Something, which I am unable to comprehend and express. I have given the name God to It. I feel that I am inisolable from It. But I can say nothing more about It." But this is not what writers and seers usually do.

We recently discussed mystical experiences, à la Andrew Newberg's book, Why God Won't Go Away. Where I differ from Newberg's mystics is that while I have had experiences which are probably identical to those of the mystics, I choose to leave them at that: I will not go so far as to say that there is "something" to those experiences. I have always seen them as a function of my brain, my nervous system.

Many mystics, too, will not go further than to simply report to others what they think about their experiences. Very few who have had the full-blown mystical experiences Newberg describes will try to push the resulting views on others as objective reality suitable for all. Rather, they tend to teach their disciples how to have those experiences for themselves and to experience their own "awakening" (or whatever). Then the mystical "reality" becomes valid only for one's fellow-mystics.

Where fundamentalism comes to play, I think, is when the disciples of a particular mystic fail to have full-blown mystical experiences. They then dogmatize the descriptions of the mystic into a doctrine of reality suited for all -- where the mystic probably would never have done this. We know that Plato was very enthused with the process of philosophical discussion, placing much more weight on the act of discussing than on what was discussed. After he died, his followers, who had written down what he said while engaging in discussion, solidified what he said into doctrine. Plato, though, probably would have been appalled by them doing this, most likely preferring that the students continue discussing, using his discussions as examples of how to discuss rather than turning what he said into an attempt to describe reality.

In the same way, I think people who have had little else going for them have taken the lofty descriptions of mystics and philosophers and poets and scientists and have turned their reports and discussions and songs and observations into dogmatized descriptions of reality rather than using their work as an example to follow -- a model of how to continue the process of seeking. In other words, the dogmatists have stopped seeking by calling the reports of their "seers" the final word.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

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