Debating God: Gary Gutting questions Gary Gutting

Gary Gutting at The New York Times Opinionator has been exploring philosophers’ approaches to the question of the existence of God. In his final post in the series, he questions himself about the views of those philosophers and his own answer to the question, “Does God exist?” (following the link will get you to all of the articles in the series).

Among the most interesting bits:

His criticism of “naive” atheism:

The weakest intellectual aspect of current atheism is its naïve enchantment with pseudo-scientific biological and psychological explanations of why people believe. There are no doubt all sorts of disreputable sources for religious belief, and the same goes for rejections of religion. But it’s just silly to say that there’s solid scientific evidence that religious belief in general has causes that undermine its claims to truth. Here I think Antony in her interview was right on target: “Theists are insulted by such conjectures (which is all they are) and I don’t blame them. It’s presumptuous to tell someone else why she believes what she believes — if you want to know, start by asking her.”


That one’s rational reasons for belief do not permit the labeling of one’ opponents beliefs as irrational:

Here what I’m saying about religion is what many rightly say about other strongly disputed areas such as ethics and politics: people on both sides can be reasonable in holding their positions, but neither side has a basis for saying that their opponents are irrational. This, I think, was what Keith DeRose was getting at when he said that no one knows whether or not God exists.

How he can be an agnostic and a Catholic:

Because, despite my agnosticism, I still think it’s worth pursuing the question of whether God exists, and for me the Catholic intellectual and cultural tradition has great value in that pursuit.

And, the crucial role played by critical reason in preventing fanaticism:

That’s because religious faith without a strong role for critical reason readily falls into fanaticism. I thought this was one lesson of my interview with Sajjad Rizvi. He showed the historical connection of Islam with traditions of philosophical reflection that have tempered excesses of blind faith. Although such traditions are still effective in many parts of the Muslim world, it’s undeniable that there are places where they have failed and a fanatical mutation has gone out of control.

An Atheist has a mystical experience: On reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God

Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book has been on my reading list since I first heard about it and it’s well worth the read, if somewhat dissatisfying in the end. Ehrenreich is the author of among other things, Nickled and Dimed in America, a feminist, activist, and avowed atheist (unto the fourth generation). It turns out she had what she identifies as a mystical experience as an adolescent. Now, much later in life, she re-engages with her younger self by rereading the journal she kept during her childhood and youth. She attempts to make sense of what happened to her. Here’s how she writes about it:

At some point in my predawn walk–not at the top of a hill or the exact moment of sunrise, but in its own good time–the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a glorious tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze.

Looking back from the distance of decades, Ehrenreich can make sense of what happened scientifically. She notes that she must have had “dissociative disorder” and that the episodes (this wasn’t the only one) often occurred in connection with the bright light of the sun. So, when she left LA for college in Oregon at Reed, these episodes became much less frequent because of the climate in the Pacific Northwest.

Ehrenreich, for all of her atheism and scientific background, is unwilling to explain her experiences solely in terms of physiological processes. Instead, she claims some sort of external referent which she calls “the other” (drawing on Rudolf Otto, of course, but also Philip K. Dick). So, years later, in the Florida Keys, she comes to understand it:

as the Presence, what scientists call an “emergent quality,” something greater than the sum of all the parts–the birds and cloudscapes and glittering Milky Way–that begins to feel like a single living, breathing Other. There was nothing mystical about this Presence, or so I told myself. It was just a matter of being alert enough to put things together, to catch the drift. And when it succeeded in gathering itself together out of all the bits and pieces–from the glasslike calm of the water at dawn to the earsplitting afternoon  thunder–there was a sense of great freedom and uplift, whether on my part or on its.

She notes that this presence, this Other, is not benevolent and rejects (or remains uncertain) whether the Other is single or multiple. In fact, in her interview with Jeff Sharlet, she accepts the term animism for what she experienced.

It’s a fascinating read for two reasons. First, because you get the sense that the clearheaded, incredibly intelligent, passionate woman who’s writing in her seventies is in many ways the person who experienced the world similarly fifty years earlier. At times, it’s somewhat difficult to believe that the acerbic comments about parents or teachers or classmates could have been shared by the teenager, but it’s still amazing to get the older woman’s take on her younger self.

The second fascinating thing is to see how this mystical experience works on the scientific atheist. It doesn’t bring her into conventional religion, by any means, but it does make her less certain about herself and her life. She has opened herself up to the possibility that there are realms of experience and reality that are not yet (and perhaps never will be) susceptible to scientific scrutiny or explanation and she seems at peace with that.

Jeff Sharlet’s conversation with her in May:

Atheism and Belief: Some recent articles

A couple of weeks ago, the Sunday Times had a profile of Jerry DeWitt, a Pentecostal pastor in Louisiana who “came out” as an atheist. It’s a sensitive profile of a sensitive man and I couldn’t help wondering if DeWitt’s spiritual journey turned out the way it did because he was doing it on his own. He never attended college but clearly is bright, thoughtful, and wanted to make sense of his faith. Unfortunately, there weren’t mentors who could help him along the line and when his doubts got the better of him, he ended up jettisoning all of Christianity. I was particularly taken by this paragraph:

Afterward, we met with the church’s founding pastor in an elegantly appointed office adjoining the main auditorium. He was a 79-year-old man named George Glass, with a wrinkled face and a magnificent deep voice full of warmth and gravitas. He hugged us both as we came in, chiding DeWitt for having stayed away for so long. We sat down, and over the course of an hour, he spoke movingly about his own struggles as a younger man, when he lost his first ministry and had to start from scratch. He reassured DeWitt that he understood his doubts and did not think any less of him. As we said our goodbyes at the door, Glass spoke again in his slow, Southern cadence, fixing DeWitt with his gaze. “The thing of it is,” he said, and we all waited as he allowed a weighty pause to fill the air — “you’ve just got to keep your mouth shut.”

As if keeping one’s mouth shut can keep the doubts away.

The article points out the growing network of atheist organizations, including the Clergy Project which seeks to help clergy who no longer believe. This communal aspect of atheism is called into question by Andrew Brown, who writes in The Guardian that atheism is impossible as an organizing force because of its individualism:

If I’m right, then liberal, individualistic atheism is impossible as an organising principle of society because any doctrine that actually works to hold society together is indistinguishable from a religion. It needs its rituals and it needs its myths. A philosophy will grow around it in due course. Now perhaps you can have, at least on a small scale, a society committed to the principles of rational and tolerant disagreement and the sovereignty of reason.

Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and himself on a journey away from traditional Christianity, reviews Francis Spufford’s recent book (a previous post on it is here) and has this to say:

He is also good at describing what it feels like to sit silently in front of the resonant absence and feel beckoned beyond it. This is not a book about religious theory; it is a record of religious experience. Like the rest of us, he doesn’t know if there is a god. “And neither do you, and neither does Richard bloody Dawkins, and neither does anyone. It not being a knowable item. What I do know is that, when I am lucky, when I have managed to pay attention, when for once I have hushed my noise for a little while, it can feel as if there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if he’s there, to dare the conditionality.” His book itself is an act of daring, a message from the frontline of an old and bruising war.

Thomas Nagel reviews Alvin Plantinga’s new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. The heart of Plantinga’s argument seems to be here:

Plantinga discusses many topics in the course of the book, but his most important claims are epistemological. He holds, first, that the theistic conception of the relation between God, the natural world, and ourselves makes it reasonable for us to regard our perceptual and rational faculties as reliable. It is therefore reasonable to believe that the scientific theories they allow us to create do describe reality. He holds, second, that the naturalistic conception of the world, and of ourselves as products of unguided Darwinian evolution, makes it unreasonable for us to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable, and therefore unreasonable to believe any theories they may lead us to form, including the theory of evolution. In other words, belief in naturalism combined with belief in evolution is self-defeating. However, Plantinga thinks we can reasonably believe that we are the products of evolution provided that we also believe, contrary to naturalism, that the process was in some way guided by God.

Nagel concludes:

Plantinga writes clearly and accessibly, and sometimes acidly—in response to aggressive critics of religion like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His comprehensive stand is a valuable contribution to this debate.

I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.

What’s in a name? Or, what is a “Christian”?

I remember a conversation I overheard twenty-five years ago, after a presentation I gave to a congregation concerning some aspect of the history of Christianity. I had used the term “Christian” repeatedly to refer to the tradition to which I was referring as well as to the doctrines, practices, and practitioners. One matron said to another, “I don’t like that term, ‘Christian’.”

Tim Noah and Ed Kilgore had a conversation this week about how, in the twenty-five years since that conversation, “Christian” has been totally coopted by some Christians, and used in the secular media to refer to Christians of a particular religious and political bent.

Noah writes:

“Christian” has become a euphemism for “acceptable to the type of Christian (in most instances Protestant) who frowns on homosexuality and wishes Saul Alinsky had minded his own business.”

According to Pew, only about one-third of Christians call themselves “evangelicals.” That’s about 26 percent of all Americans. The other two-thirds  self-identify as Catholics (23 percent) and with either mainline (18 percent) or historically black (7 percent) Protestantism. (A smattering of Mormons, Orthodox Christians, and other tiny subgroups make up the remaining 4 percent.) To suggest that conservative Christians are the only Christians is like saying Hasidic Jews are the only Jews. It’s a cartoonish misconception that the Christian right has managed to sell to a largely secular news media that’s too sensitive to accusations of anti-religious bias.


Broadly speaking, of course, nearly all of contemporary western culture is rooted in Christianity and the Bible one way or the other, if you trace it back far enough. So the idea that Hollywood needs to create small subsidiaries to attend to some niche it calls “Christian” seems absurd. What Hollywood is really doing is creating small subsidiaries to attend to Christian conservatives. And why not? Conservatives like movies, too, and maybe some of these will be good. But let’s call them Christian conservative films, because everyone knows that’s what they are. Evangelicals shouldn’t get to claim one of the world’s great religions as their exclusive property.

Kevin Drum points out the changing demographics in American religion. According to his statistics:

  • Membership in religious organizations had gone steadily up over the past century, from roughly 40% of the population in 1900 to 70% today. Lack of belief was more common and more public in 1900 than it is today, even if it was called “freethinking” or “skepticism” or some related term.
  • Conservative Protestant denominations have also been growing very steadily over the past century. It wasn’t a sudden boom that burst onto the public scene when Jerry Falwell became famous. The Pentecostal movement started up in 1906 and it’s been growing ever since. Ditto for evangelical sects, which have grown steadily from perhaps a third of all Protestant denominations in 1900 to something like 60% of them today.

His takeaway: That conservative religious groups have become large enough and powerful enough to constitute an important voting bloc (and marketing demographic for film and music, et al) at the same time that America is becoming more secularized.

He’s writing in response to a piece by Julian Sanchez. Sanchez wonders why so few people in Washington self-identify as atheist or agnostic.

Reflecting on earlier essays to which I’ve linked, Andrew Sullivan asked whether conservative Christianity was “breeding Atheists.” His answer? Yes.

So Christianity in America, as Ross Douthat’s excellent forthcoming book explains, is undermined by both the political temptation and degeneracy on the evangelical right and the failure of mainline Protestantism to advance a Christianity that is both at ease with modernity but also determined to transcend its false gods of money, celebrity, and power, and to require more from its adherents.

We need a via media that lies not in between these models, but transcends both.

He also reported on readers’ responses to his question.

Atheists, Unitarian Universalists, Catholics

Atheist Convert: Jennifer Fulwiler.

My feelings of frustration and resentment towards God reached a head. And then, just at the right time, I happened to come across a quote from C.S. Lewis in which he pointed out:

[God] shows much more of Himself to some people than to others — not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as in a clean one.

Of course. I’d been walking around talking trash, watching TV shows that portrayed all types of nastiness, indulging in selfish behavior…and yet wondering why I couldn’t feel the presence of the source of all goodness. I realized that, if I were serious about figuring out if God exists or not, it could not be an entirely intellectual exercise. I had to be willing to change.

I wasn’t sure if I was ready to sign up for that for the long haul, but I decided to give it a shot: I committed to go a month living according to the Catholic moral code. I bought a copy of the Catholic Catechism, a summary of the Church’s teachings, and studied it carefully, living my life according to what it taught, even in the cases where I wasn’t sure the Church was right.

My goal with the experiment had been to discover the presence of God; instead, I discovered myself — the real me. I had thought that cynicism, judgmentalness, and irritability were just parts of who I was, but I realized that there was a purer, better version of myself buried underneath all that filth — what the Church would call sins — that I had never before encountered.

I found that the rules of the Church, that I had once perceived to be a set of confining laws, were rules of love; the defined the boundaries between what is love and what is not. It had changed me, my life, and my marriage for the better. I may not have experienced God, but, by following the teachings of the Church that was supposedly founded by him, I had experienced real love.

An atheist responds:

Also on the Big Think: Can an atheist be a Unitarian-Universalist? Part I. Part II. Not according to the Unitarian-Universalist, who seems unable to answer the Atheist’s questions reasonably. His argument: Atheism=Hitler and Stalin.

Atheism, Belief, and Intuition

Brad Hirschfeld, “When Atheism turns Ugly

Fanatical atheism is no worse and no better than fanatical religion, though it may be more bitterly ironic. There is something pretty odd, dare I say hypocritical, about a bunch of people who call themselves “freethinkers” and “humanists” not only verbally abusing people of faith, but actually tearing up verses from the Bible as an act of protest, as they did on a pier in Huntington Beach, California Saturday morning.

Evidence of a more measured approach:

Jonathan Ree on the “varieties of irreligious experience”

Opponents of religion – anti-clericals, humanists, rationalists or whatever we want to call ourselves – ought to recognise that religion is a complicated box of tricks, containing much wisdom as well as folly, along with diversity, dynamism and disagreement. And we need to realise that many modern believers have moved a long way from the positions of their predecessors

Gary Gutting on Phillip Kutcher’s analysis of the spiritual experiences underlying belief:

Your religious beliefs typically depend on the community in which you were raised or live. The spiritual experiences of people in ancient Greece, medieval Japan or 21st-century Saudi Arabia do not lead to belief in Christianity. It seems, therefore, that religious belief very likely tracks not truth but social conditioning. This “cultural relativism” argument is an old one, but Kitcher shows that it is still a serious challenge.

Finally, “Why are intuitive thinkers more likely to believe in God than reflective thinkers?