Is Intelligent Religion Possible in a Postmodern Time?

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new atheismRecently in the secular(ish) West the common belief and bias about those who identify as religious goes something like this: people who identify as religious don't tend to love new ideas, think belief is sufficient to pave over the messy bits that crop up out of Holy texts, and don't mind following rules, even if they don't understand the rationale behind them. For many of us, that's not the world we want to live in. With science answering many of the tough questions that religion tried to answer, and with fundamentalism and corruption not exactly helping religion's image, is it possible to be a critical thinker and still practice as part of an organized faith community?

In today's secular, scientific, rational, post-modern Western society, atheism has risen to prominence, with brilliant authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens writing some of the most compelling books of the past decade. While not identical, their argument against God and religion can be summarized like this:

1) God does not exist because science answers the tough questions about our universe without needing a supernatural Creator as part of that answer.
2) God is provable i.e., it is something that can be proven to either exist or not, and currently can be proven to be highly likely not to exist.
3) Religion ruins everything i.e., it is responsible or at least can lead to irrationality, violence, sexism, stupidity, corruption, war, ill health, tyranny, slavery, genocide, racism, thievery and, yes, even bad sex.

So let's see if they are right.

god the father

Argument 1: Dawkins sets up his definition of what he means by God very clearly: "...there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it." (The God Delusion, p.52)  It's the all-powerful, all-knowing God of our childhoods and the one that makes a great comic book or movie character (see the Emperor and Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars). It's the God that is Human, all too Human, just with some extra strengths. This is not the Divine depicted in Buddhism, nor the formless presence that stirs creation in Genesis, and once Dawkins goes here, he doesn't tend to depart from this version to address any other version of God (given that he thinks all versions are irrational, I'm guessing he felt he had better things to do). Both Dawkins and Hitchens then go on to note that the theory of evolution, contemporary physics and modern or post-modern science can all provide adequate answers to questions like "how did life come about?" and "what is the nature of the universe?" without ever needing to rely on the necessity of any deity.

jungleFine, you say, I agree that evolution is true and rational, but wait, surely this amazing complexity and interconnectivity of life is not random, not chance? Sorry. Dawkins breaks down this "theory of improbability" by showing that biologists depict natural selection as a cumulative process: adaptation and change happen slowly and cumulatively over time, thereby making the complexity of life amazing but really not all that improbable (God Delusion, p.147). Dawkins even offers a mathematical formula for the admittedly amazing odds that life arose on this planet: "If the odds of life originating spontaneously on a planet were a billion to one against, nevertheless that stupefying improbable event would still happen on a billion planets (God Delusion, pp. 165-166)." Finally, Dawkins slams the door shut that many thinkers have tried to bolt through: "Well, God is the mystery then." But Dawkins counters if God becomes whatever science can't answer currently, then God will continually shrink into nothingness as science will surely continue to grow and provide answers (God Delusion, p.151). Um, ouch.

hand of godArgument 2: Some of the tension between the religious and the non-religious has been over whether or not God can be proven to exist. During pre-Newton, pre-Einstein and pre-Darwin times, religion was a potential source for answering questions about the nature of our world. But in post-modern times, what kind of proof are we looking for, now that many of the mysteries have a scientific explanation (and often one that is no less wondrous than angels and voices from the sky)? Post-modern atheists want a proof that comes from a strict empiricism that is demonstrable by the scientific method. In this perception or framing, God becomes by necessity either an entity or a force. In many religious perspectives, this might be a fair framing. If one follows that line of reasoning, it becomes quickly clear who will win this debate: it is becoming increasingly unlikely we are going to find something we can call a "God molecule" or a "God force" that is found in all matter in the universe. The other move, they argue, is to bring in our own subjective experiences, but this takes a decidedly relativistic and unsatisfying turn. Once again, if this is the only framing of the discussion on God, it would appear that the atheists have got it right.

Argument 3: Interestingly enough, while religion can lead to all the negative aspects of humanity, it is apparently not responsible for anything good, such as art, music, architecture, literature, community, social programs, or ethics. When that occurs, Hitchens thinks that could all arise without religion (which may be true) and Dawkins is too busy being disgusted by religion to bother thinking about that possibility. Where they do have a more compelling point is here: when religion insists on "one true way", "one answer" above all, it is a recipe for violence, hatred, exploitation and lack of thought. Damning, indeed. But surely a bit overstated? Neither author really convincingly argues that it is religion itself that is the first cause of the violence. In most examples cited, other factors like economics, politics and poverty cannot be separated from the situations. This is in no way to say that religion is not a significant factor, but it is not clear that it is a necessary factor.


So now what? Is there a post-modern theology that can tackle this? Process theology might be it. Originating with Alfred North Whitehead out of the collapse of Newtonian physics and the rise of Einstein's transformative discoveries, Whitehead crafted a metaphysics that included a view of a universe that flowed and changed. In process theology, God looks more like this:

1) Not omnipotent, infallible, immortal, impassible, immutable, omniscience

2) God is panentheistic: God is the whole and greater than the whole, the whole is in God,

3) God is panexperiential: takes into account all the feelings, sensations, apprehensions that make up the fullness of being and being a Being.

4) God acts as a lure to all creation. Process theologians look at life's tendency to move towards greater complexity, to not give in to entropy, to evolve, and see that as the Divine. As Process theologian Marjorie Suchocki puts it "The simple did not contain the complex; when complex shell life emerged it was a leap beyond its past to a new form of existence. It moved into a future that transcended all achievements of its past. Presumably shell life has no consciousness, as we know it, such that it could imagine possibilities that go beyond its past. What accounts for the pull towards its future?"  (Divinity and Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism pp. 46-47).

5) Feelings matter. Radical empiricism is defined by the understanding that sense-perception is neither the only nor the primary mode of experience, but is rather derived from a still more elemental and organic togetherness of the experiencing subject and the experienced environment. This allows for all that messy stuff that many of us rely on for shaping our reality and knowledge: the unconscious, the cultures and environment around us, memory, quantum fields, and all that spooky, hard-to-quantify stuff.

6) God is the creative drive: God, according to process thinkers, is essentially creative, and when we participate in God we are in the creative process, drawing on past experiences and impressions to create a future in every moment. John Cobb Jr, who is one of the driving forces behind this approach defines it this way: "It must take account of its past, and this past sets boundaries determining what is possible for the present individual. However, precisely how the present subject responds to its past, precisely how it incorporates the past feeling, precisely how it integrates the multiplicity of feelings into a unified experience- this is not determined by the past. The past does not dictate precisely how it will be immortalized. This is determined by each present actuality. For each actuality is partially self-creative; it finally creates itself out of the material that is given to it."  (Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition, p. 25)

In short, this is a post-modern God, a Divine that frees us from a still-mechanistic nature-as-robot-master viewpoint that contemporary or the The New Atheism atheism appears to reduce us to i.e., it's all just brain states, we are "bio-robots", and evolution as a scientific paradigm only.


So does Process Theology transcend the Dawkins/Hitchens test? Would they invite me out for a pint or send me down the block to the pub that they weren't actually going to? The answer is not definitive. First off, they and other atheists have to be willing to entertain a God/Divine that doesn't look like a superhero. The fact that there are significant religious communities that practice in that way should at least allow for that possibility to be discussed, but reading and listening to many atheists has shown me that it still does meet with surprising reluctance when offered as a counter-argument. They can't argue about a Divine that's only on their terms, there needs to be a better understanding as to what people are meaning, practicing, or experiencing as God before they can declare that God is dead.

Secondly, there needs to be a discussion on what constitutes proof. If the universe is going to be defined by only a strict empiricism then we have a problem. Strict empiricism doesn't cover the full range of human (or even quantum) experience so if atheists are going to use that, they have to be fair to their method and allow for some of the messy stuff (hey, even Einstein didn't like this*) to be part of the discussion . It seems oddly, well, Modern, instead of Post-modern to limit the discussion in this way.

Thirdly, there needs to be a willingness on all fronts to remain open-minded to our own beliefs, convictions and dogmas. I had a telling exchange as a grad student with Daniel Dennett when I brought up David Chalmers's work in the Problem of Consciousness, which he thought was such an incorrect track to traverse i.e., the bio-robots verses the interiority of experience argument again. He basically refused to have the discussion because he felt it was a waste of time. Atheists and religious practitioners get stuck in a similar discussion with the religious pointing out that science does not tell us the meaning of Life nor how to live a good, just, fulfilling or ethical life, which Atheists then answer, so? Atheists, including Hitchens and Dawkins, can be blind to their own inherent existentialism or empiricist epistemology, and this stalls the discussion as much as they feel religious folks are stalling it by not applying some rational criteria to their beliefs. So we all need to expand and stretch a bit here.

Fourthly those of us practicing in a religious community need to acknowledge the hell on earth that some of us have created in the name of religion and work towards transforming it.

butterflyFifthly, some of us religious people are going to have to go through the sometimes painful and sometimes freeing process of realizing God might not be what we thought He/She/It was and seeing what our faith looks like in light of our current knowledge and time. For some of us, this makes for a God that "makes sense" and is removed from fantasy; for others, this will crush belief. But the way Hitchens and Dawkins frame religion, you'd be left with the impression that this never happens, when in fact it happens in Churches, Mosques, Temples and Synagogues all the time. Religion and religious belief is not static, nor do even many of the more "traditional" of various beliefs frame it that way.

If faith doesn't inspire dialogue and transformation in all of us, likely we are missing the point. The New Atheist perspective seems to make the disappointing move that was characteristic of modern versus postmodern thought: it ignores the full(er) experience of being human, ignoring the interior lives of human beings which provides a perfectly valid way of learning and coming to wisdom of all sorts. Recent bodies of study and knowledge, including the Integral movement, have been challenging more compartmentalized ways of understanding the world and ourselves, hoping to address this strange defect of compartmentalization that has impoverished so many disciplines and left many of us hungry for a more integrated way of thinking of ourselves and the world. And ignoring all the examples in the world where religion has yielded exceptional individuals, communities, art, compassion and traditions seems a grossly simplistic misunderstanding of what religion is capable of.

So perhaps we are each buying a round: me to acknowledge the negative things that religion has wrought in its name and to do the work of evolving it forward for our time, and New Atheists to actually learn about religion(s) and their beliefs and admitting that perhaps, just perhaps, there is more "in there", then they first realized.


* Einstein called quantum entanglement, "spooky action at a distance."  

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  • Comment Link Jim Baxter Wednesday, 07 September 2011 01:46 posted by Jim Baxter

    I am afraid this article still reflects a very traditional theology, similar to what passes as "Progressive Christianity" today - God as an entity. The article argues with terms like proof, belief, faith ... all of which are of the intellect. Who needs to prove that God exists? We either experience God or we don't experience God. It is not something of time/space. Can we prove we love? Can we measure how much we love someone? Of course not. So why do we think we can quantify God? The Jewish tradition will not even apply a name to God. God is about our level of consciousness. Read the Jewish and Christian mystics. Read the article I submitted last April, "A New, Very Old Take on God" and then engage in discussion. "Intelligent Religion" is an oxymoron. Religion/spirituality has nothing to do with the rational. It is something we can only address through metaphor.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Wednesday, 07 September 2011 16:01 posted by Chris Dierkes


    Thanks for the note. I'm in a bit of a rush right now, so I'll have to come back later and fill in some details.

    But (broad brushing here), I find the sharp dichotomy between metaphor or rationality or feeling and faith/belief problematic. I agree that people too often get caught up in mental modernist debates about proof of God existing or not.

    That said, I think you've pushed the differentiation too far into a kind of separation or duality.

    e.g. The Biblical concept of faith is trust, what one puts one's trust in. That's what belief largely means in The Bible. Would we call that "of the intellect". I would assume it needs to include the way we see the world but is not limited to such a description. James Fowler's work on stages of faith has a strong cognitive or intellectual component.

    Or as the Letter to Peter states, "always be ready to give a reason for the hope you have in you."

    Admittedly the reason never proves finally the hope (else it wouldn't be hope). But there is an admonition to give such a reason, however limited of value it ultimately and most certainly is.

    Are the mystics not rational? I think they are transrational (transcending), but I think in many ways they are quite rational (yet including). This is Wilber's argument anyways--that mystics in certain ways align with scientists and artists (metaphor masters they) because they rely on practice, evidence (data if you will), and community connection. Rather than primarily relying on dogmas (though they have those as well).

    And is God only able to be addressed through metaphor? The apophatic tradition (e.g. Dionysius the Areopagite) would say that no terms are valid of God, including and especially (perhaps most dangerously) spiritual metaphors. Dionysius suggests we might rely on "ugly" metaphors for God since the beautiful ones (Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Oneness, Peace) are precisely the ones we are most likely to glom onto and actually er believe.

    He would say strictly we should God does not Exist. The Kataphatic tradition uses metaphor. The Apophatic undercuts metaphor.

    And it seems to me the Nondual traditions argue quite explicitly for being able to name The Ultimate in the experience: Consciousness, Godhead, Emptiness, etc. Of course those are to be taken literally, but I'm not sure they are metaphor exactly either.


  • Comment Link Rhian Walker Wednesday, 07 September 2011 18:31 posted by Rhian Walker

    Hello Jim, working to deadline so I will have to read your piece later this week, however thanks for your comments. Quickly, what I would agree with is that I am "playing on their field", meaning I am at least trying to tackle some of the discussion of God as an entity and at least explore it in due course, partly because generally the atheist argument either centres around that concept, many people practicing a faith believe in a God conceived this way, and because moving straight into God as a non-entity is often too big of a leap for most people entering the dicussion (as I mentioned in the piece, Dawkins won't even consider it at all).

    Process theology is a theistic theology. There is much debate within that theology as to how to express what God might be, with some authors like Dr Jay McDaniel putting forward a notion of God that is probably more recognizable to those who study Buddhism, but at the core PT would agree with you that God is something you experience. Anyway, I look forward to checking out your piece and learning from it.

    As for the comment that religion/spirituality has nothing to do with the rational, I'd like to push on that. I think you are right that the discussion should not sit only there, that it is not a full framing. But I also don't think it should be pulled out of there entirely. Are we not, as spiritual beings, called to bring in all our faculties when living life and exploring the Divine? Why would we drop certain tools that create our worldviews in this area? I think this is another example of the dualism that I am uncomfortable with, I don't want to make religion all about feeling or all about rationality, both feel incomplete. But perhaps I am misunderstanding you?

  • Comment Link chela Wednesday, 07 September 2011 18:41 posted by chela

    Great article. I really love your voice and I think many of the points you are making here feel very important.
    Like this one:
    First off, they and other atheists have to be willing to entertain a God/Divine that doesn't look like a superhero.

    It seems without having clarity on what we're actually talking about when talking about God, this assumption that God is a superhero in male human form is an 'easy way out' in terms of dismissing the whole thing. I recently used the word God with a friend and when the conversation went sideways I had to ask, 'Wait a minute, do you think I'm talking about a dude sitting on a could up there?' She did, which I thought was a little absurd, but within that context could see her dismissal and resistance to the entire conversation.

    I love what you're pointing to around faith inspiring dialogue and transformation. And while you may need to buy a round on the basis that it's important for religion to be responsible for the damage that it's caused and that religion does need to evolve, all too often those who are anti-religion (not just atheists)also need to grow up their views of what is happening in religion and realize that it is and has evolved. The judgments and assumptions made about what religion is up to these days may be as limited, outdated and ignorant as these people are accusing religion of being.

    There's a lot in this article and I look forward to seeing how the conversation unfolds. Thanks for posting this.

  • Comment Link Rhian Walker Wednesday, 07 September 2011 22:42 posted by Rhian Walker

    Thank you Chela, I'd agree that there is now some much baggage and assumption around religion that it becomes an unpacking exercise really quickly. What is interesting to me too is it, at least in this part of north america, causes an almost allergic reaction when it is even brought up (the exception being Buddhism, where west coast north americans seem to have more comfort with, even if they may not have much experience with). I think it is the complex nature of our time that for most topics, we likely all need to pause and go deeper than our assumptions, and I see an appetite for that, which is exciting. R

  • Comment Link Paul P Saturday, 10 September 2011 05:11 posted by Paul P


    I think the answer to your question is “No, not yet”

    I don’t want to get too micro and critical but some of what you are saying is in the realm of quantum flapdoodle to me. So let me highlight a few personal “allergic reactions”:

    Your point number 5: “Feelings matter… this allow for all that messy stuff… memory, quantum fields, and all that spooky, hard to quantify stuff.” My response is “Huh? What are you saying here? Are you saying process philosophy relates feelings to quantum fields?”

    And, “Strict empiricism doesn't cover the full range of human (or even quantum) experience so if atheists are going to use that, they have to be fair to their method and allow for some of the messy stuff.” Again, what the…? Empiricism doesn’t allow for messy stuff?!? Actually what strict empiricism requires you to do is to say, “I don’t know.” Is that messy enough for you?

    Moving on to a little more constructive feedback… I think your whole essay could be more effective if you expanded the following point which you only give one sentence:

    “Fourthly those of us practicing in a religious community need to acknowledge the hell on earth that some of us have created in the name of religion and work towards transforming it.”

    This is in fact the main route (I suspect) to starting to answer your question with a Yes. And if you come up with a “how to” you will solve one of our biggest collective challenges for transformation.

    “The New Atheist perspective seems to make the disappointing move that was characteristic of modern versus postmodern thought: it ignores the full(er) experience of being human, ignoring the interior lives of human beings which provides a perfectly valid way of learning and coming to wisdom of all sorts.”

    Well here you are defining the New Atheist movement for your own purposes. Dan Dennet may choose ignore interior experience, but Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, does not at all. The New Atheists don’t actually all agree on the details either. What they do agree on is that the Abrahamic God (and derivatives) does not exist and belief in such is superstition and such pre-modern/literal interpretations of myth are doing more harm than good right now. I think this, the main point the so-called the Four Horseman have been trying to make, is being lost in your attempt to deconstruct their argument.

    It seems implicit in your article (my reading of it anyway) is that we are in “post-modern times”. Really? What does this mean? I could, but I’m not going to spend the time digging out the stats on this: what percentage of North Americans are actually practicing religion in a “post-modern” fashion vs. a pre-modern fashion. Republican America? Conservative Canada?

    Chela even echoes this illusion (of the religious “elite” or enlightened?) in her comment that “those who are anti-religion (not just atheists) also need to grow up their views of what is happening in religion and realize that it is and has evolved.” Really? This conclusion comes in the face of clear data to the contrary (her conversation with her friend.) that people are NOT in fact thinking in post-modern terms when the term God is used.

    Everybody needs to “grow up”, not just the anti-religious or the atheists!

    In what sense has religion *as is widely practiced*, grown up, or “evolved”. Now I understand there is a haven here in Vancouver at Bruce Sanguin’s Sunday United Church service, but is this the norm or the exception? It is the norm that Dawkins and Harris are getting at, it seems to me, not the exception. Again, their main point, and thus the precise definition of God in Abrahamic terms, is that they see the consequences of this pre-modern thinking in our world and are appalled at its misuse and exploitation.

    Here’s a great (lengthy and a bit of a tangent but well worth the read) article

    that speaks to the Repbulican party’s exploitation of fundamentalist religion (among other things) to undermine democracy which puts the “Problem of Religion” in current practical terms. It’s A BIG PROBLEM!

    So in order to evaluate whether intelligent religion is possible now, why are you not looking at people who are practicing and teaching and spreading religion to the masses now. Take for example Pat Robertson; in the Washington post recently,

    he claims an “earthquake means we’re coming closer to the coming of the Lord.”

    How many Pat’s are there out there? How many Bruce’s?

    This is what the New Atheists are actually against. (me too!)

    The New Atheists are also against using the “ballast” of belief in the literal interpretation of the old mythology to shore up the validity of post-modern God claims. Here’s a great discussion “Does God Have a Future?” featuring Sam Harris and Michael Shermer vs. Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston

    This is quite lively and interesting: a sort of post-modern tag-team spiritual wrestling match. The above link is to part 2 of 12 and if you listen to Sam Harris he talks specifically about his concern for conflating “religion as it is” and “what religion could be". His primary concern is clearly with religion as it is practiced by the majority.

    Moreover, here’s a debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig (a research professor of theology) at University of Notre Dame on the question: “Are the foundations of moral values natural or supernatural?”

    In the introduction Prof Craig is introduced as someone who can “articulate to the public and defend the doctrines of the Christian faith in a way that is highly accessible and also theologically and philosophically rigorous.” Later in the debate (though not the topic of the debate) Prof Craig agrees with the claim that those who believe in the Muslim God are going to go to hell because they’ve got the wrong God.

    Sit with that one for a minute please.

    As I sit with your question: “Is intelligent religion possible in a post-modern time?” I’m left with: Probably not, unless we drop the G-word.

    If you don’t drop the G-word, aren’t you are asking people to leap frog from pre-modern to post-modern? How can you do that without becoming deeply rational first?

    I may be biased (of course) by my own experience. I was confirmed in the United Church at 16, then subsequently left the church and went on to do graduate work in physics. So for me, I personally had to lose God – all the traditional mumbo jumbo I was taught – and spend some time in the angst of meaninglessness of my own pure rationality in order to now find a more compassionate, inclusive, and open perspective – let’s call it a spiritual perspective. You may want to call it God. I don’t, for all the reasons I describe above associated with probable mis-interpration of what I actually mean.

    I think what I am trying to say in this now rather long comment is that you can’t answer this question by attacking the New Atheists. I don’t think we only need the minority of New Atheists to look inward; we also need majority of traditionalists to let go of their superstitions.

    So if we went out for a beer, Rhian, we’d end up discussing a lot more than what you have pointed to here.

  • Comment Link Bruce Sanguin Sunday, 11 September 2011 05:44 posted by Bruce Sanguin

    Thanks Rhian,

    Enjoyed your piece. I've never understood why the so-called new atheists never took on a John Cobb or a Phillip Clayton or John Haught. The refusal to recognize earlier and emergent waves of consciousness/worldviews seems unnecessary. These good people are actually serving our collective intelligence by challenging the Pat Robertson's of the world. I welcome their critique. I just wish that they would be a little more nuanced.

    I also wish that they would own that when they choose to interpret the facts, they are presenting a metaphysics—for example, scientific materialism. There are plenty of theological interpretations out there which realize that science is an indispensable way of knowing.

    I hardly see what you are doing here as "attacking" the new atheists. It's my experience that it is the new atheists who are on the attack.

    And as Wilber points out atheism is not the absence of spiritual intelligence. It's spiritual intelligence that is "not theistic" and IMO got frozen there.

  • Comment Link Rhian Walker Monday, 12 September 2011 03:31 posted by Rhian Walker

    Paul, there is some great food for thought and links here that really add to the discussion, so thank you. If I try to talk to all your points though I think I'll make this comments section look like another article so hopefully you won't mind if I just tackle a few instead. First, let me start with where we agree: the majority of people practicing a religion in the world do not fall into a postmodern version of it. And while there are a significant number of people practicing what I am calling evolving, open versions of both Christianity and Islam, I am not claiming that they are the majority. But what I have found in almost every atheist book and argument that I have encountered is simply no willingness to have a discussion about any other type of religion except for fundamentalist and literal interpretations of these religions. And that's frustrating because it stops the discussion too soon. That said, I have (and I think I demonstrated it in this piece), a great deal of agreement and respect for what I'm calling the New Atheist perspective and its important work on tackling fundamentalism. I too think it is a big issue. You highlighted too, in the next paragraph, where I am interested in the discussion going in terms of where you have been and got to in your thinking/experiencing around if not God, then the mystery of life. As for atheists looking inward and traditionalists shedding superstitions, that was basically the conclusion of the piece, no? I'm not letting anyone, including myself, off the hook here. What I want us to avoid is this annoying, polarized, "attacking" style in discussion while still holding each other to a critical amount of rigor. Thanks again, R

  • Comment Link Brandon W Monday, 12 September 2011 05:14 posted by Brandon W

    Thank you for this piece, Rhian.

    Paul, I appreciate very much the perspective you're bringing to the discussion. I'm a practicing engineer with a personal path that’s not dissimilar to the one you've described. I was brought up Christian, then felt compelled to ditch it after some time with the sciences and some heart-wrenching research into the role of religion in many of humanity's worst hours, all of which brought about a familiar "angst of meaninglessness of my own pure rationality in order to now find a more compassionate, inclusive, and open perspective". For years I roamed that wilderness (and for the most part loved it), eschewing the temple, embracing DIY spirituality as the only way to an authentic experience of what I used to call “God”.

    And now, in a move that will sound familiar to those who have studied Spiral Dynamics, I’ve moved on from that as well. I’ve recognized that living the kind of life I aspire to live is, in practice, a tremendously difficult thing to do. I became less and less sure that I could do it on my own, and became more and more attracted to storytellers of many traditions, ancient and modern, and contemporary figures who were capable of interpreting these stories in ways that were relevant and spiritually potent. Church was, ironically, one of the last places I expected to find such ritual, but nevertheless (to my delight) it has been in church that I have most often found it. Fast forward a few years, and I now find it fruitful to use the G-word again, although (after several experiences similar to that described by Chela) I do have the good sense to use it very judiciously it in mixed company.

    Summary point: I think what Rhian has done an excellent job of articulating here is that the fight worth fighting is not really between the religious and the atheists. We have a lot in common, and we’d probably have a good time in the pub together discussing how the worst of each have had gaping holes in their theses and spread their fair share of hatred through fundamentalism, and the best of each have brought a great deal of beauty, wisdom, and critical thought to the world. While such a dialogue might be fun and even transformative, at a more elemental level, I hope that we can agree that the argument which is more worthwhile to be contemplating is that between a life inspired by compassion, justice, and creativity, verses a life inspired by narcissism, security, and rigidity. How we get to the former, despite abundant cultural influence to pursue the latter, is simply a matter of personal preference.

    As Karen Armstrong points out in “A Case For God”, history has shown us that fundamentalist movements are invariably the result of attack from opposing belief systems which are perceived as threatening and incompatible, and further attack only serves to drive these movements more to the fringes and make their memberships more militant and closed-minded in their defense. For all the good that the New Atheist movement has done in bringing to light some of the pitfalls of fundamentalist religion, they aren’t doing anyone any favours by framing their critique in the form of an attack.

  • Comment Link Paul P Monday, 12 September 2011 21:21 posted by Paul P

    Bruce, Rhian, Brandon,

    Thanks everyone for their feedback.

    Perhaps it is me who is hyper sensitive to the way the discussion seems to have been setup up by this article. I have been trying to understand the New Atheist movement more deeply myself recently and I didn’t think this article captured what motivates it. To me there is a very practical agenda at work. I am glad to hear that you agree that this agenda is important. And I probably could have found a gentler way to enter the dialogue; I’ll keep trying…

    Why doesn’t Sam Harris debate John Cobb? I can’t speak for him, but my guess is that he is not concerned with the minority position of sophisticated process philosophy/theology.
    Why do most atheist books not discuss religion other than the major ones? Again, I see it as a practical move. The bible is placed in almost every hotel room across North America; there is not even one copy of John Cobb’s “Process Theology, An Introductory Exposition” in the Vancouver Public library system.

    So practically speaking I’d like to be asking the question, how do you see a discussion of creating intelligent religion in the world going without addressing the prevalence of "unintelligent" religion: traditionalism / fundamentalism in our world now? Or how does process theology address it?

    Rhian, you also talk about the requirement for the traditional religious to change their interpretation of God. How is this change of view actually accomplished via process philosophy/theology?

    In rational empiricism, a change in one’s view is dictated by the facts. And while empiricism does not explain all of experience, it does capture a lot. How do you reach someone (like a Pat Robertson or like a suicide bomber or his/her teacher) who simply chooses to believe something in spite of the facts?

    Is Wilber wrong to suggest that rationalism is the developmental step required to evolve from traditionalism and literal interpretation of myth? Is it not a “spiritual leap frog” move from traditionalist theology to post-modern process theology?

    Brandon, you raise an interesting point that “fundamentalist movements are invariably the result of attack from opposing belief systems”. If this is true, one issue is whether you think being open to only the facts constitutes a rigid belief system or not. Spreading the facts is hardly an attack or taboo except in certain religious circles.

  • Comment Link Jim Baxter Monday, 12 September 2011 23:14 posted by Jim Baxter

    I now have to comment on the comments. Being stopped in my tracks and forced to re-think is one of the great pleasures in life. As I sit here and ponder where to begin I too get the sinking feeling that this is going to turn into an article rather than a reply.

    Right off, I withdraw my clear separation between rational thought and irrational experience. A better distinction might be the physical/mathematically descriptive universe, also known as the time/space continuum and what I talk about below as the non-describable “truth” and “love”. Again I have to say that the arguments about atheism, fundamentalism, main line and post-modernism seem to be missing the mark.

    I would like to lay out some basic premises:
    Does God exist ? Yes.
    Can we know God? Yes, but to the limits determined by our current state of evolution.
    Is God of time/space? No. It’s the other way around. Time/space is a manifestation of God.

    And here is why.

    Picture the following analogy. The universe is like we are sealed in a cardboard box. We spend eons exploring this box, from the inside, trying to figure it out. We probe, we dissect, we analyze. Our theoretical physicists develop models like super string and brane theory, mathematics which appear to indicate that all of the inside of the box including us, is composed of tiny vibrating bits of energy. There is strong evidence also that there are other boxes and many additional dimensions. Even space itself may be discrete units of vibrational energy. Very interesting and mind bending. We venture to say that we continually gain more understanding of the mechanics through which time/space evolved from vibrational bits of energy to produce atoms, molecules, cells, etc. and ultimately homo sapiens.

    But what of self-consciousness, truth, love? They exist, we experience them, we live by them. Without splitting hairs we might posit that they are unique to our species. However, truth/ love alone in time/space defy attempts to define, measure or even describe them. Perhaps serendipity random chance alone can account for super strings coming together, ultimately creating an entity capable of knowing and reflecting on truth and love. But, from another view, perhaps, whatever the fundamental constituents of our universe may be, they have “intent”. Regardless, our left brain may allow us some limited ability to comprehend special relativity, quantum theory, super strings and multi-dimensions, but “truth” and a “love that passes all understanding” seem to be far beyond the realm of mathematical equations. Truth and love are beyond the physical, they are a mystery. Let us call this mystery “God”.

    So, God is. And this “isness” is not part of the inside of our box, the physical universe. The dichotomy: a manifestation of time/space (the human being) evolves to the point that it can perceive and reflect upon something that is beyond time/space. The perception or the experience is direct, ungraspable, spontaneous, unpredictable. The perception of the absolute truth /absolute love, no matter how fleeting or weak, is unalterable, permanent and positive life-changing. I need not argue about the existence of God any more than I need to argue that I am. I am. That’s it. There is nothing archaic, modern, post modern or whatever about “I am” or about God.

    It is the reflection part that is very much within the box, very much affected by our DNA, genetic make-up, culture, environment, history and the like. It is religion that is a human construct. That’s the issue.

    What about that issue, then. Brandon W’s comment really rings a bell with me and I am going to echo him.

    To follow the line of thought above, this “understanding” of God strips away all the dogma and creeds of Christianity, and Judaism . What is left then is nothing but “isness”. However, we sense an inadequacy here: is there anything we can say or talk about or hang on to with our rationality? We can look at history, there are after all 3000 years of tradition and wisdom. And when we search and study and ask, eventually we cut to the chase, and end up with Hillel (sort of a contemporary of Jesus) and his famous comment: “Love God with all your heart , with all your mind, with all your strength and with all your soul. Everything else is just commentary”. We seem to be back at “isness” somehow, still wondering how we get to such an alternative state of consciousness.

    Ram Dass once said that, if on a Wednesday at 2 pm facing south on the corner of such and such, while scratching our arm, we experience one of those inkling ah-ha moments, sure a little green apples we will be back there next Wednesday at 2 pm facing south and scratching our arm. This may not work but eventually we find ourselves back in our original faith, paying no attention to the words but attending to the tradition and liturgical goings on and ... it works! Irony at its best.

    We try to use our rational to explain mystery. But we cannot explain. Therein lies the mistake. All we can do is try to describe the changes in our behaviour resulting from our fleeting insights into the wonder that lies outside of time/space – God. Perhaps this is the post-modern approach to God and religion. If so, the post-modern approach is 3000 years old.

  • Comment Link Brandon W Tuesday, 13 September 2011 23:40 posted by Brandon W

    Jim, I like the sense of mystery and unknowing that you’re describing in your comments, and agree that this is one piece of the puzzle. Like Rhian, though, I want to push back on any view of religion as a purely irrational enterprise that is somehow apart from the physical world. In my experience, this is a precarious move that can isolate whatever wisdom we may glimpse in our “spiritual lives” from our political actions and social responsibilities which make up an important part of many (if not all) faith systems. To cite a few examples, the Hebrew bible is split into three parts: The Laws: how to run a society in a way that minimises violence, disease, and poverty, The Prophets: a history of the rise and fall of the Hebrew monarchy, detailing the successes and (more frequent) failures of these kings, and lastly The Writings: The lyrical, mystical language of the Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, and so on. It’s worth noting that this last section was not included until much later than the first two. Jesus’ mission was highly political and almost entirely inspired by the injustices of the Roman Empire and the collaborations of the Jewish priests with the imperial occupation during his time. His “Lord’s Prayer” centres around two very practical, real-world issues during his time and ours: food and debt.

    I raise this point because I want to ensure we’re not equating “spirituality” with the often misunderstood Buddhist principle of emptiness (sunyata). Rather than total annihilation, the Zennist aims at cutting through and derailing concretization processes, thereby negating any sense or false Perception of an eternal, substantial, inherently existent self that exists independently of causes, context, or conditions. On this point, the contemporary Zen master Daido John Loori asserts that "sooner or later, you need to come down from the mountain and go into the market place" *

    One point of clarification: by “political actions”, I don’t mean attempts to convince another of what they should believe through advertisements, legislation, or otherwise. Again, we have to look more elementally at how wisdom manifests itself in the world: not through rigid belief systems, but through compassion, justice, and creativity. (Others may choose different words here, but these resonate most true to me right now. I’m sure you get the idea). True to our best post-modern thinkers, these are the yardsticks of righteousness (right action, ethical conduct) we could (should?) be using: Think MLK’s famous dream that his children would be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. It’s character and the application of character that matters; not wealth or power, not intelligence, and not beliefs or spiritual practices for their own sake.

    Paul, I think you’re on the right track to guess that Sam Harris doesn’t debate John Cobb because his target audience is the “Misguided Majority” of fundamentalist religion practitioners. We can add this to the list of commonalities between the new atheists and the post-modern (and post-post-modern) religious thinkers – many are highly concerned with the damage that has been and could potentially continue to be wrought by narrow, militant thinking, including such thinking promoted by some religious groups.

    Ironically, my perception has been that neither the new atheists nor the post-modern theologians appear to be all that concerned with making their ideas attractive to the membership of these religious groups. My one critique of Rhian’s piece is that the very use of the phrase ‘intelligent religion’ could easily be interpreted as elitist, and therefore may be a turn-off to those practicing more pre-modern, mythical versions of religion. As I alluded to in my personal history before, I was once a member of such a church. Their beliefs and rituals weren’t ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’. To the contrary, on balance they had a positive and critical influence on my spiritual growth at that particular stage of my life.

    Process theology seems to be worth a good look to those comfortable with a certain amount of academic-style writing and thinking, and who are in a stage of their spiritual development where they want to integrate their understanding of God with the knowledge they’ve acquired through scientific empiricism and the post-modern social sciences. This may well include some followers of the New Atheist movement, and so I think Rhian is right to offer it as a way in to a dialogue with this community, but I don’t believe (nor do I think Rhian suggested) that this is a theology that is likely to appeal to Pat Robertson’s congregations. The hard question that follows from this is: If the goal of the new atheists and the post-modern theologians is not to reach out to the rigid, militant groups, both secular and religious, then what really is their agenda in relation to these groups? I can only infer that it is to promote themselves and their belief systems as more intelligent or enlightened. Are we really all that surprised then that these groups turn a deaf ear and continue to follow the lead of the Pat Robertsons of the world? In short, to make a genuine impact on another individual, we must meet them where they are with compassion. Spiritual leap-frogging is in most cases an unreasonable expectation.

    This brings us to Paul’s query of whether “being open to only the facts constitutes a rigid belief system or not”. In a world overrun with information, I think it’s difficult for anyone to say what “the” facts are. We’re all in a state of overwhelm, constantly compelled to choose which facts we will embrace, research further, and integrate into our perceptions of reality. While I agree in principle that “Spreading the facts is hardly an attack or taboo”, sharing information can most certainly be done in a variety of ways, from a generative, welcomed exchange, to a unilateral, violent thrust that has no interest in the receptiveness or the wellbeing of the recipient. I would argue that Christopher Hitchen’s choice to subtitle his book “How Religion Poisons Everything” is closer to the latter, as is his movement’s insistence that religion itself is the first cause of violence. To echo Rhian’s point, “In most examples cited, other factors like economics, politics and poverty cannot be separated from the situations.” Unfortunately, most fail to integrate these set of facts into their arguments, as it’s much simpler to imagine that if we were to just get rid of religion, then all our troubles would go away. Given the long list of social and environmental catastrophes of the last hundred years which have had almost entirely secular organizations at the helm, I’m much more convinced by propositions that such a utopia could arise by controlling the influence of narcissism, security, and rigidity in our lives and cultures. Can process theology have a role in this transformation? Can new atheism? Can mythical spiritual practices? I believe that all can have a role, depending on who you are and what stage you happen to be in. We don’t need a silver bullet worldview that will enlighten everyone. We need a new yardstick for righteousness.

    * Adapted from

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Wednesday, 14 September 2011 21:51 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Hey all, wanted to jump in here with some thoughts and general resources. I have to be a little rapid fire as time is short, but I wanted a chance to get on and add a few things.

    I've been enjoying the thread, which has been impressively civil given the topic, and a few things have been jumping to mind. I apologize in advance for all the coming links, but lots has been cascading into my mind as I've been reading along.

    I've been thinking a lot about Stuart Davis' great response to the New Atheists from 2009 'Dear God... Five Things Religion-Haters Should Know'. I could really post the whole thing, but a couple paragraphs in particular I think are worth reprinting here:

    "2, There are healthy & pathological versions of every level.

    A religious person can be healthy or sick at any stage of development. The answer to sick religion is healthy religion. While Pat Robertson told us 9/11 was God's revenge for homosexuality, millions of other Christians -at the same mythic developmental level- were organizing their communities to offer help and healing. Because that is what healthy mythic Christians do (and they do it better than just about anybody). For every sick fundamentalist there are many healthy believers contributing to society in a positive way".

    I think this speaks to points that Brandon made in his last comment. He also says:

    "3, The more people evolve, the less religious (fundamentalist) they are.

    One definition of 'religion' is a partition between the saved and the damned, a boundary that separates 'us' and 'them'. When people grow, they include more and exclude less. As we live into higher development levels, our circle gets bigger. Evolving means a bigger experience of 'We'. Also known as Love ;-) As the self evolves, it recognizes more people (and plants, and animals, and things) as part of its own identity. That's why development creates security for everyone, it transforms 'them' into 'us'".

    Davis makes what I think is a crucial point when he says, "The 'answer' to fundamentalism is not to get rid of Religion, but to get religion to evolve". Now is religion evolving? I wanted to respond to Paul's suggestion that very little was happening outside of the "enclave" of Bruce's church. I don't think this is true. Here are some resources. Firstly, the "emerging church" movement has been going on for awhile and is happening in several countries.

    Secondly, there was a festival for progressive Christians this past summer in North Carolina.

    Then there's Michael Dowd who calls the New Atheists "God's Prophets"!!

    Listen to these passages:

    “The God that Richard Dawkins says is a delusion is a delusion! That way of thinking about God reflects an outdated, Bronze Age worldview that we have blindly believed for generations simply because someone said so and because our traditions taught us to. Biblical literalists are driving thinking Christians out of the church.”

    "The information generation requires a real God. We live in a new era when the Hubble Space Telescope lets us see the farthest reaches of the early Universe on an iPhone. In this kind of a world, a cosmic warlord imagined by goat herders who wrote their insights on animals skins is hardly a compelling source of guidance and inspiration. Thankfully, that view of God is no more real than Santa Claus. No matter what the Bible says, God is not a supernatural terrorist".


    I also wanted to say that I appreciate the point that Rhian and Brandon both make about the socio-economic component of the rise of fundamentalism. Chris Hedges makes this point strongly in his debate with Sam Harris. I really recommend this debate, it's civil but heavy hitting, with both sides making good points.

    That's it for me today, gotta run, hope some of that is useful/stimulating for the discussion. I'll leave the last word to the always insightful and humorous Stuart Davis:

    "That's why Mythic religious peeps are freaking out. Their World (view) is vanishing like millions of species God gave them Reign over. Eventually (if they don't destroy humanity first, with their lust for an apocalypse), mythic religion will become about as important to future generations as magic is to us. Magic should be used in Harry Potter movies, not for the religious murder of Tanzanian Albinos. Mythic religion should be a history lesson, not the guiding belief of a U.S. President. That's why Bill Maher's movie Religulous is funny: It's pointing out the fact that there are a LOT of people living with a World View that went out of style in 1637 (thanks, Descartes!). Bill Maher is hilariously pointing out the fact that religion is literally retarded, because it is developmentally arrested. I mean, it would be hilarious, if it weren't so appallingly true. Evidence indicates 70% of the world is at a Mythic (or lower) level of development. And they are religious!"

  • Comment Link Brandon W Friday, 16 September 2011 16:08 posted by Brandon W

    Thanks a lot for this, Trevor. Great resources. Some of this hard-hitting dialogue is exactly what we all need to shake us out of our silos on some of these topics. Thank God for New Atheists!

    That being said, I do find some of your language a bit dismissive of the power and potential of mythic practice and ritual when appropriately integrated into one's larger worldview, but that discussion deserves its own article so I won't try to unpack it here. I'll consider myself on assignment!

  • Comment Link Paul P Saturday, 17 September 2011 23:36 posted by Paul P

    Jim, thanks for your summary of your view of the role of the mysterious and irrational. I agree there is much wisdom to be found in the ancient traditions and at the same time adding another definition God = mystery doesn’t really help me much though. I want my spirituality connected to my rational reality, not separate from it.

    Brandon, I really appreciate your previous summary comment. It makes a lot of sense to me and is very skillfully explained. And I totally agree we don’t need a silver bullet worldview And sometimes it seems to me that the Integral Worldview is portrayed as just that, a silver bullet, as though all we need do is figure out people’s so-called level of development and meet them there.

    I am most concerned about what I (we?) teach my (our) children. Certainly the world is overflowing information these days. And so we need ways of sorting through the wheat from the chaff. For me, I think a system of thought (and feeling) that is based on the facts is what is needed for this, especially now.

    What is not needed IMO is a “faith-based” system of sorting. And by that I mean one that takes on faith what a holy book says the Word of God is, what an authoritative figure says the Word of God is, and so on,... Seems keeping such structures of consciousness around only confounds the issue.

    While Stuart Davis is hilarious, the levels of religion as described on his blog are really just a simple exercise of applying Wilber to a topic. It almost reads as an undergraduate assignment on integral theory, whose novelty has worn off for me personally. I imagine the same analysis could be done with Santa Claus. What does such an analysis add to the discussion? Is it religion that needs to evolve or simply we, the people, ourselves?

    What is to be done with the majority of “mythic believers” who are steeped in faith-based thinking? Such religious dogma impacts things such as stem cell research, a woman’s right to an abortion, teaching evolution in schools, same sex marriage, and so on… Seems that redefining God does not help. So in this way I don’t see how Process theology transcends a good schooling in rationality.

    I am all for reducing narcissism, fear-based security needs, and rigidity and I am all for increasing compassion, creativity, and openness. I am also all for using stories and metaphor as a way of containing and conveying wisdom between each other. How fun! I am for brotherhood, sisterhood, community, love, truthfulness, joy, ecstasy and peace. The list goes on and on. Interesting, to me anyway, that I don’t need to use the G-word to convey any of that. Of course, you can redefine God as that list (or other), or the source of it, or the process by which it manifests, but to me that seems rather arbitrary.

    Perhaps one interesting topic for further discussion is related to Rhian’s second point:

    “Secondly, there needs to be a discussion on what constitutes proof. If the universe is going to be defined by only a strict empiricism then we have a problem. Strict empiricism doesn't cover the full range of human (or even quantum) experience so if atheists are going to use that, they have to be fair to their method and allow for some of the messy stuff (hey, even Einstein didn't like this*) to be part of the discussion . It seems oddly, well, Modern, instead of Post-modern to limit the discussion in this way.”

    I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian and I am sure there are some of you out there who know a lot more about this than me. And I would like to learn more about the real problems that people see with “strict” empiricism. (Not sure what strict vs regular empiricism is?) What is the “messy stuff” that empiricism does not allow for? Experiences become empirical facts once they are reported truthfully…

  • Comment Link Paul P Sunday, 18 September 2011 21:50 posted by Paul P


    Just want to add thanks for adding the links to Michael Dowd’s work. Dowd defines “religion as right relationship with reality” which is an interesting take.

    His short essay “The New Atheists as ‘God’s Prophets’” is also quite thought provoking. And there is an extended discussion on Richard Dawkins’ site in which Dowd explains:

    “at least 55% of the human population are Christians and Muslims. I just don't see much possibility that, within the next 2-3 generations (which is when enormous changes need to be made for humanity to come into right relationship with the larger body of life), I don't see much hope of 4-5 billion human beings stopping using God-language. But I really do see the possibility of billions of religious people using God-language in a naturaliized/REALized way, as I do and as most of us who embrace an evolutionary worldview do.”

    This certainly does sound practical and more friendly than the New Atheists approach.

    I just hope in the end we don't end up (like now) with different camps fighting over what is the "right" right relationship with reality.

  • Comment Link Brandon W Tuesday, 20 September 2011 00:19 posted by Brandon W

    Great reply Paul.

    Thanks for pointing out that defining God as a list of desirable human traits (compassion, justice, and creativity), or any other list, would be an arbitrary move. I couldn’t agree more, and hope I didn’t give the impression that that’s what I was suggesting. Along with being arbitrary, trying to define God as such is actually idolatrous in many traditions (another loaded term, I realize, but one that I think could still be useful for contemporary spiritual practice if reconsidered). Those practicing in the Jewish tradition, for example, not only won’t try to define God, they won’t even speak the name aloud. As I understand it, this is all designed to help them overcome the minds’ relentless compulsion to frame the sacred within concepts which are suitable only for the material world.

    I want to quickly ask you about one piece of your comment: "What is to be done with the majority of 'mythic believers' who are steeped in faith-based thinking? Such religious dogma impacts things such as stem cell research, a woman’s right to an abortion, teaching evolution in schools, same sex marriage, and so on… Seems that redefining God does not help."

    I'm afraid I'm not following you here. The moral judgements you mention (and the regrettable legislation which has been created from them) are not truly the product of 'faith-based thinking'. They are the product of thinking which revolves around faith in (or, to use an earlier meaning of the word, faithfulness to) one particular concept: a super-being God who has very fixed ideas about what good behavior is and what is morally reprehensible. I believe that the most compelling critiques of such religiously-justified dogmatism are all about questioning this definition of God by opening minds and hearts to other possibilities.

    ‘Faith-based thinking’ can look a lot of different ways. Borrowing again from Karen Armstrong, one of Einstein’s predictions based on his Theory of Relativity (that the mass of the sun reduces the velocity of light) was left unproven for forty years. During this time, physicists were content to work on related experiments as though relativity were true. They had what religious people would call ‘faith’ in it. Without such conviction to search into the unknown for what one senses may be true, and indeed to base one’s actions on a belief (or at least suspended disbelief) in a theory, despite a lack of clear evidence, innovation and discovery would not be possible.

  • Comment Link Paul P Thursday, 22 September 2011 06:50 posted by Paul P

    Interesting… no, Brandon, I was not implying your comment contained any particular arbitrary move.

    In answer to your question, briefly, I meant that redefining God does not help address faith based thinking. I don’t really agree that an assumption one makes about a theory like special relativity while performing other calculations for related expts is “faith”. It’s an assumption, readily falsified at any time by new data. The point is religious faith, at least in my limited understanding of it, is not falsifiable by new data or experience.

    I’ve been asking myself why I got involved in this thread apart from my initial misunderstanding that the New Atheists were being attacked despite performing an important and as I see it necessary function. And as I re-read the article, another part of it has to do with my reactivity to the misrepresentation IMO of the scientific world view as a “still-mechanistic nature-as-robot-master viewpoint”. That combined with the implied assertion that science is enslaving us to this viewpoint and that process theology might be a way out.

    To me, this is not what science is about at all. To me, science is about understanding Nature. It’s not about sticking to a particular viewpoint about Nature. Science is an open, self-correcting, viewpoint based on the facts. It’s not complete. It will never be. Some people may want to call the incompleteness a mystery. But incompleteness/mystery does not imply supernatural, it just means we don’t know.

    I like what Feynman says:!

    “I can live with doubt, uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live with not knowing than to live with answers that might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things and I’m not absolutely certain about anything, and there are things I don’t know anything about… but I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things…”

    Maybe we just need to get over our fear of not knowing.

  • Comment Link Brandon W Friday, 23 September 2011 20:37 posted by Brandon W

    Hello Paul,

    In reading your latest post, I’m convinced we’re more closely aligned than you might realize. “Maybe we just need to get over our fear of not knowing” – couldn’t agree more.

    Just as the (more typically religious) principle of faith can be a critical technique for scientific inquiry, the (more typically scientific) principles of uncertainty and curiosity can be a critical technique in the spiritual quest. Whereas God may be un-provable and therefore not falsifiable, all of our concepts about God, religions, rituals, legends, etc. are suspect and open to critique. I started this comment thread explaining a bit of my spiritual journey. What was “true” for me at one stage was not true in other stages of my life, or put another way, the rituals that helped me to access God and develop my character at one stage no longer held potency in other stages. This path has been well studied by developmental psychologists. Ken Wilber’s interpretation of this research is here:
    Bruce also recently wrote a beautiful piece explaining a conceptualization of God as the “alluring pull from the future” here:

    To imagine that the whole spiritual journey can be *truly* expressed within only one set of rituals or beliefs is what the Integralists call a Level/Line Fallacy. Both the traditional mythic religious folks and the hard-core materialists are in a “first-tier” stage of development, and so both are susceptible to this fallacy. This generalization is of course not true for all, but it does help explain why the religious have been stereotyped as emotional, uncritical thinkers, and why the materialists have been stereotyped as seeing nature as a “robot-master” void of eros.

    Just as physicists were willing to trust Einstein’s predictions sufficiently to work despite clear evidence, Christians are willing to trust Jesus’ guidelines for spiritual practice (the principle of kenosis being an example) without really knowing what it will benefit for them or their world. Both were men who spoke with authority in their fields based on their accomplishments and the respect they had earned, and so many are willing to trust and follow their work for a while (until their theories are proven false) rather than trying to figure everything out on their own from first principles. This is the meaning of faith. It doesn’t mean uncritical acceptance, but rather the willingness to suspend disbelief for long enough to be able to properly critique (and even possibly refine) the method for yourself.

  • Comment Link Paul P Sunday, 25 September 2011 02:54 posted by Paul P

    Hi Brandon,

    I feel compassion and kindness in your words towards me, which I appreciate very much.
    To bring the discussion back in a more personal direction, I agree that what is true for me, what I value and so on, has changed substantially over time. And I find it interesting you refer to Mark Michael Lewis’ site Rational Spirituality as I have read his lucid writing some time ago (The site is now gone but it can still be found in the Wayback Machine.)

    Thanks for pointing out the level/line fallacy and its relevance to this discussion. As to first-tier/second-tier, on some level I think that’s good marketing by Wilber (but that’s another story). What is relevant here, though, is the idea that rationality can be “transcended” and that some “higher” forms of knowing (such as intuition, and other forms of subjective “knowing”) come into play at more complex levels of consciousness. I think, and agree with Mark Michael Lewis, that this is essentially Enlightenment as the Ultimate Con-Game.

    In my experience, it is not rationality that needs to be transcended. For one, it’s a rational move to go from so-called first-tier to second-tier. And fact, I would go so far as to say the entire scientific enterprise, the way it is practically applied, is “second-tier”. That is to say that, as I’m sure you know as an engineer, there are a variety of models of reality available for use when working on a problem, ranging from the primitive to the highly sophisticated. A skilled scientist uses the most appropriate level of model. In other words, one does not use quantum field theory to design a bridge, and conversely one does not use Archimedes principle to design a nuclear submarine.

    Also, the spiritual path outlined by Wilber seems to be that of The Seeker (ascending and ascending) and that is not my path, personally, at least not currently. Mine is more along the lines of The Finder (descending). This path is one that has led me deep into my personal history, my family and ultimately soulful relationship both with myself and others. And ultimately I am aiming at a sort of balance between the two currents (although balance probably isn’t the best word nor is it actually attainable).

    Who says rationality is necessarily cold? Rationality properly used is quite warm, and highly effective at sifting through the signals from the body part of the body/mind. A rational decision can be quite loving, if one simply adds that requirement into the equation. It’s the rational mind that pauses to reflect, consider and regulate the limbic responses. Rationality is only cold if one is cutoff from these feelings, and in a state of over-regulation/suppression. And believe me, this I know, I have been there.

    Thanks also for your illumination of how you understand the meaning of faith as different from uncritical acceptance. On a cognitive level, I get it. I will say that in my experience, the feeling tone of a physicist’s trust of Einstein’s (say) theory and a Christian’s trust of Jesus’ teaching (I have been both a physicist and a Christian at different times in my life) is quite different. That is to say that, in my experience the association is akin to comparing apples to oranges; and while both might be sweet and juicy, they are actually quite different experiences/phenomenon.

  • Comment Link Brandon W Thursday, 29 September 2011 19:42 posted by Brandon W

    Hello Paul,

    Thanks to you too for your kindness and clarity as we negotiate these very complex and culturally polarizing topics. One thing I do feel compelled to push back on: I’m not sure where you heard either Rhian or me suggesting the transcendence of rationalism as a path to enlightenment. Where is this coming from for you? If I was to take that tack, I’d not only create a lot of unanswerable questions in my perception of reality, I’d also soon be unemployed!

    I was also advocating earlier for the appropriate inclusion of the mythic in my conversation with Trevor, so I’m suggesting that this worldview or sphere of wisdom not be simply ‘transcended’ either, as you frame it. All of the Integral literature out there, when discussing vertical movement from one stage of development to another, always couples the concept of “transcend” with “include”. Here’s a talk between Andrew Cohen and Ken Wilber that explains it better than I could: As we move forward, we’re well advised by the best teachers of our day to include all the wisdom that came before, while also excluding what is necessary. Some call this process of including “honouring our ancestors”. Of course this is easier said than done, and most in first-tier stages of development are quite averse to the idea. But as much as it’s necessary for us to rebel against these earlier stages in order to sharpen our abilities in our current stage, we can’t help but remember what it felt like to be living in them. From a post-post-modern perspective, this is a good thing, ‘cause we need to build on that experience later on.

    I’m not sure if you have kids, but a good metaphor for me is watching my little daughter learning how to share, while she’s also learning how to stand up for herself. Both are important ways of interacting with the world, and while she’s likely to abide exclusively in one or the other for a while, in time I hope she can learn to understand the appropriate roles of both and include both in her character. With luck (and some competent parenting) she might even eventually be able to comfortably abide in both at the same time.

    The link I tried to share on Spiral Dynamics didn’t work earlier because there was a period at the end of it. I’ll try to share it again here:

    Please correct me if I’m misunderstanding, but the “Con-Game” I think you’re reacting to is not the process of transcending and including the scientific materialist worldview into second-tier awareness. It’s the process of pulling someone down who is currently in a higher stage of development back into a lower one. Spiral Dynamic theory shows that people can act out of earlier stages (de-evolve) when put under high degrees of stress or made to be fearful or angry. Fire and brimstone preaching, or xenophobic anti-terrorism rhetoric, can have just this effect on people.

    I like the distinction you make between a Seeker and Finder, and if I read you right you’re expressing distaste for a process that would have a person continually absorbed in self-improvement rather than getting on with the business of our soulful relationships. Dig it.

    On the idea that the rational mind can do it all (including be warm and loving by regulating our limbic responses), I’ll only say that I have spent enough time with various writings on ethics, leadership, and the like that I feel I often ‘know’ exactly what I should do to be the kind of man I aspire to be and to lift up the relationships and groups I’m involved with to the potential I can see in them. And I find that this knowledge is all but worthless without character. Even if I could muster up the vitality and courage to follow through with it, I’d come off as suspicious and uninspiring (to myself and to others) without compassion and heart-felt conviction. I’d also lack the creativity to adapt that knowledge to the complexities of the situation at hand. On the personal level, I’d be doomed to just keep doing the things I’m good at in the same old ways.

    My guess is that this need for character is because humans are social animals, so we’re most comfortable and most effective when we’re around those who are empathetic to us and who share some common values. So even when our differences are first on everyone’s mind, one thing we have in common is our awareness of the mystery of existence and our reliance on that unknowable, radiant, precious spark of Life. Or put another way, We’re all God’s Children. If I can start my thinking there, then I’ve got my priorities right, and things seem to go much better. But I’ve found that I can’t consistently act from this place without prayer and participation in rituals of invocation with my community. Religion, when done right, builds character and community, which builds healthy societies. While my mind is a critical piece, I need to draw from more than my mind. While the material world is my home and my workshop, I need to draw from more than the material world.

  • Comment Link Paul P Monday, 10 October 2011 05:03 posted by Paul P

    Hi Brandon,

    Thanks again for your warm reply.

    I appreciate there are practices (such as prayer and other rituals) that can help people to develop a deeper sense of connection with others. There is no doubt to me either that without compassion and heartfelt connection with others, rationality alone can come across as suspicious and uninspiring, as you say. But we don’t transcend rationality to arrive at compassion. I am saying that we remember it! We were connected, compassionate and loving first. If we have cutoff from this, then perhaps our work is to remember the truth about ourselves, rather than “evolve” or grow into it. We don’t need to be “second-tier” to be compassionate.

    Yes I have kids. My oldest son, who is 4, has lots of freely flowing feelings and makes intuitive choices much more often than rational ones. And my friend’s dog appears to be intuitive/instinctive, certainly not rational! Forms of subjective knowing precede rationality in an evolutionary view, not transcend it. The mammalian brain has mirror neurons, which is likely related to the source of our comfort and effectiveness when others are around us. I’m not sure we need to be sharing common values (in a rational sense that could be articulated) as you suggest. I suspect it is more a feeling state: comfort in the herd so to speak. I am not trying to reduce everything to brain states here, I am talking about what evolution teaches us about the what (most likely) the interior/consciousness/subject experience is like.

    Rationality lives in the interior and is not of the material world, feelings too live in the interior and are not of the material world, so yes absolutely we need to (and do) draw on more than the material world! I agree and as you have said before, we are not likely that far apart.

    Re: your question about transcendence, I am sorry if have lumped you in with agreeing with Rhian’s article. Rhian wrote: “Does process theology transcend the Dawkins/Hitches test?” and then proceeded to outline a list of “requirements” for improving their rational position. For example, point #1: “they and other atheists have to be willing to entertain a God/Divine that doesn't look like a superhero. The fact that there are significant religious communities that practice in that way should at least allow for that possibility to be discussed…” The argument just doesn’t make sense (to me). The existence or size of a practicing community doesn’t necessarily add credibility to their practice, in my mind. Ever heard of the Raelians? 70000 members in over 97 countries!

    I am not saying intelligent people can’t be religious. Clearly, lots of intelligent people are. And if you define religion as a community that practices together (which some do), then many groups form “religions”. By that definition, hockey is a religion. If the question is: can intelligent people get together and practice together? If that’s “intelligent religion”, then surely the answer is yes. For me, to do that, I don’t need to bring in God. Other people want to. Amen.

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