Way Too Charitable
To Newberg
David Eller

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "David Eller"
Subject: Re: Some responses to Newberg
Date: Tuesday, May 01, 2001 5:17 PM

Transparent Spacer
Quote Graphic Rule


In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth & the Paths, of Spirits & Conjurations, of Gods, spheres, Planes & many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether they exist or not. By doing certain things, certain results follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophical validity to any of them.
-- Aleister Crowley, quoted from Robert Anton Wilson, Cosmic Trigger (1976), in the drawing on p. 18


Quote Graphic Rule
Transparent Spacer

If the mystical experience is what Crowley said it was, why not be charitable toward those who make this a hobby (or whatever)? And if the mystical experience is what Crowley said it was, then Newberg's primary research points squarely in that direction -- even though his reports, like those described in Courcey's piece, may say otherwise.

When read between the lines, Courcey summarized Newberg's game more succinctly than I could ever have done (and I'm a writer -- and I doubt he even realized, when he wrote it, what I see in his piece). Courcey spends his entire piece talking about the Duke researcher, but he's really talking about Newberg, because both are doing the same thing!

Do you think my feelings summarized in the final section are off base? It is those underlying values which motivate me to handle this subject the way I have. Remember, I still have three other pieces to typeset (as soon as I can physically sit in this chair for that long). One is polite only in the superficial sense, and the others aren't even polite about it at all. Besides, anybody who thinks I'm being too polite is welcome to comment along those lines. You are welcome to do so as part of your piece, which I haven't worked on yet, or even to write a letter for next month, but I think your piece provides good balance against which context I wrote my piece. Had yours and Courcey's pieces been a bit polite, I might have even provided some needed balance the other way.

My stated editorial goal is to encourage cooperation if not understanding. My hidden goal, in presenting this chapter, is (of course) to get people to read it. If my response (what many of our readers will read first) is too harsh, some of those readers will blow the main piece off and will not benefit from what I see as beneficial about it.

If there's something that you think I should add to or remove from my response, I'm open to a reasoned argument. If my treatment of it provides one of several responses within an acceptable range, then perhaps we need to run with what we have and start thinking about how we might approach an interview. I'd accept questions in advance, and even consider hiring a speed typist to "broadcast" the whole thing live on the web, fielding questions from surfers.

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

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "David Eller"
Subject: Re: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Some responses to Newberg Date: Tuesday, May 01, 2001 8:41 PM

Perhaps it's their last refuge because they realize that we really have no business questioning or assessing what's going on in the privacy of someone else's own mind. I naturally bristle when Christians announce to me that I actually "realize," deep down, that the Bible god exists (Romans 1:16-24), but am willfully denying this "fact" so that I can justify my sinful rebellion against God. (Bwaa-ha-ha-ha-haa!)

And when they do this, my only response is to point out that they are presuming to know what is going on in the privacy of my own mind. Call this a "last refuge" if you will, but it's really no different from me assessing someone's mere announcement of their beliefs or what they think is their experience.

So, to be fair, I will not announce to theists that they're hallucinating (etc.), but will only go so far as to state that their personal religious experience cannot be used as proof of anything in a public discussion, that their report is nothing more than hearsay, that the theist must use other means in an attempt to prove the existence of gods. I will not carry it any further than that.

Realizing that many skeptics see this as a reasonable position, some theists will milk this situation for all it's worth. This still does not justify me pressing my position to a point that I feel to be unreasonable in a public discussion. Only when they try to get me to go along with their conclusions (or try to get me to behave as if their conclusions are true) do I rightly have a response.

Were it not for the Burden of Proof, the most untestable claims would also be the most unassailable, simply because such claims cannot be disproved. However, since the burden rests upon the one making the claim, the Argument from Personal Experience becomes the weakest case for the existence of God. This is why no hypotheses is even worthy of consideration unless the proponents show us a way in which their hypothesis could, in principle, be disproved.

People are free to think what they want and to come to whatever conclusions they want about any matter. We are also free to try to persuade others into agreeing with us (as I am now doing with you). But, in so doing, we expose ourselves to the scrutiny of our fellows (as I hereby offer my case up for your scrutiny). During such discussions, we must use accepted methods of argument if we are to expect others to take our claims seriously.

The Argument from Personal Experience is neat for both sides. The theist likes it because she can justify her personal faith within her own mind, and has every right to do this within the confines of her own mind. The skeptic likes it because it is not a genuine argument for the existence of gods, but is merely a report of the theist's emotional state. Even when the theist tries to use the Argument from Personal Experience in a public discussion, the skeptic can dismiss it without even touching the validity of the experience itself: the skeptic does not need to go that far, because hearsay of this nature is not a valid reason for granting assent to an empirical claim.

And you will notice that I did not fall short of making this suggestion, both directly in my second response to Gilbert De Bruycker's question and indirectly by publishing Kevin Courcey's piece (which all but links Newberg's style to that of Dr. Koenig, who has been caught engaging in this very form of pandering).

My position is that Newberg is probably somewhere between being a complete believer in what he's suggesting and being a huckster of the Templeton Foundation variety. To me, Newberg seems to be apologizing, in a sense, for having made this profound discovery. My style would be different: let the cards fall where thy may, and deal with whatever may be the result.

If they do, Newberg would probably be one of the first to take the offensive.

And if they do, this is so far off base that it would be a simple matter to show this position to be as unfair as I feel the "temporal lobe seizure" position to be against the mystics. To say this would be akin to saying that someone who cannot carry a tune is brain-damaged or lacking some vital function. No. The person who can carry a tune has a talent. Hopefully the singer uses that talent for some good purpose, such as deriving pleasure for oneself.

I liken it to the abortion argument: Is abortion along the lines of a tooth extraction? No. Is it premeditated murder? No. It's somewhere between the two (so our best bet is to think in practical terms of trying to minimize the instance of abortion through sex education and effective birth control methods).

Similarly, the mystical experience is not, in my opinion, an example of the brain functioning normally: we could not survive if we remained in this state at all times, and people who have never experienced this state live entirely healthy lives. But, as Newberg shows, this is not a seizure, either, because the mystic has control over when and where this function will or will not be triggered.

If a god exists, Newberg's argument here is valid.

But, this argument does not itself show the existence of a god, and Newberg is clear on this matter.

As I have explained above, to use this as an argument for the existence of God is to put the cart before the horse. People who are already theists (for whatever reason: most use the Argument from Design to justify their faith) will now be able to think of themselves as slightly more intellectually fulfilled in their theism, while realizing that this is not the main reason they believed in the first place.

The problem is that Newberg goes to such lengths to explore this possibility (that if a god exists, he may have devised this brain function), that the reader could easily lose track of Newberg's own admission that this is by no means a proof for the existence of a god.

At some future time, I may be able to pinpoint this aspect of Newberg's book as being contrived, as I have been able to do with the section on the alleged medical benefits of religious faith. However, at this point, I do not have enough information or education to carry my skepticism this far. So, the safest bet for me is to see Newberg as being somewhere between the two extremes of completely accepting what he suggests (he says he doesn't) and being on Templeton's bankroll (I'd need to see the books).

Except that true manifestations of solipsism are almost always very destructive for the solipsist, at times resulting in the death of the solipsist. So solipsism, especially as it approaches its more dangerous manifestations, is self-regulating (nowadays usually through intervention and enforced institutionalization). Where it is not self-regulating, it is probably not dangerous.

And if a critical mass of the public reaches a dangerous level of this tendency (which is unlikely), then so much the worse for the rest of us who are careful to avoid this trap ourselves.

But I realize that as whacked-out as some people's religious beliefs can get, most of us tend to function pretty much the same way in our respective waking states. In business, we quickly learn where to draw the line between making profit and keeping a customer base; if we don't, our business usually folds and we revert to being a harmless pawn for the boss-man. Personal and social relationships are self-regulating in a similar manner. Like the laws of gravitation, these principles hold true regardless of one's religious views.

Only when one political faction gains way too much control do we find abuses running rampant. Then, we find ourselves needing to physically intervene -- and only until a balance of power is restored.

This is where the aspect of the public forum comes to play. They may believe what they want in the privacy of their own minds. They may even try to convince others to agree with them. But once they make this attempt at persuasion, their arguments become subject to the scrutiny of others. Beliefs are sacred only to the extent that they remain private.

When theists approach me with their various god claims in an attempt to convince me to give assent to those claims, I respond exactly as you have described. This includes when a theist stumps for a certain public policy based solely upon an argument exclusive to one's religious tenets.

Christian homophobes almost always try to bring other angles into play, such as alleged psychological damage, when arguing against homosexual rights. They do this precisely because they know that we all know that the purely religious angle is utterly without foundation in a public discussion.

But when the theist merely reports her or his beliefs, without asking me to go along and without belittling me for not playing the game, I really have nothing to say, except, perhaps, "That's interesting to know; thank you for telling me that."

In the sense that any hobby might be seen as time-wasting, I might agree. For the most part, it's in the eye of the beholder.

I have long thought of the hobby of collecting as being quite destructive, seeing very little difference between the personality profile of a collector and that of a junkie or a compulsive gambler. I have seen collectors get so compulsive about their hobby that they've jeopardized the family budget just to keep up with it. The used book store owner who is not a book collector has a decided advantage over one who collects books as a hobby.

But I am not about to crusade against collectors any more than I will crusade against drug use or gambling -- or private personal religious expression. I draw the line with drugs (for example) when the junkie goes out and robs someone to get a fix, or with gambling when someone is caught embezzling in the deluded hope of winning enough to repay what was taken. Then and only then should we take stern action -- for the robbery or the embezzlement. But most people who get high (usually drinkers and marijuana smokers, but many narcotics users as well) do so without harming anybody else. Ditto for most gamblers. So I will call drug use and gambling dangerous only when they prompt someone to engage in these other destructive behaviors.

And the private religionist who has not solicited a response from me is doing fine by my standards. Unless they assert that I ought to go along with their religion, unless they expect me to behave according to a set of uniquely religious tenets, unless they belittle me or treat me with indignity for not going along with the religion, they won't hear about it from me.

This is precisely where Ronald Reagan's late-life hobby of running for U.S. President became so destructive for so many people!

My only question is, Where do we draw the line when it comes to taking action? For now, I am satisfied with keeping the Newberg findings at the discussion level and trying to popularize skeptical views.

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

Graphic Rule

Material by Cliff Walker (including unsigned editorial commentary) is copyright ©1995-2006 by Cliff Walker. Each submission is copyrighted by its writer, who retains control of the work except that by submitting it to Positive Atheism, permission has been granted to use the material or an edited version: (1) on the Positive Atheism web site; (2) in Positive Atheism Magazine; (3) in subsequent works controlled by Cliff Walker or Positive Atheism Magazine (including published or posted compilations). Excerpts not exceeding 500 words are allowed provided the proper copyright notice is affixed. Other use requires permission; Positive Atheism will work to protect the rights of all who submit their writings to us.