February 03, 2006

The Pomp and Circumstance of Secular Rationalism

So I'm sitting here trying to write my second novel (man, that's hard), and I've had a few drinks and I'm looking for distractions and I start reading my blog's comments, just to see, as one does. Maybe someone has finally recognized my genius after all these years. Maybe someone will have given me a little digital pat on the back: you're all right, dude, you're all right, so brilliant, yet so free of pretensions, and man are you ever funny! I love it when that happens. Maybe someone will have attacked one of my posts in such a way that it's easy to respond with a brief witticism that easily displays my subtlety of wit, yet manages to get across the idea that I don't actually care all that much either way. Hey, it happens.

Anyway, in the process I realize that frequent commenter Josh has commented on my quote from John Weidner's post on the vagaries of the religion vs. science game show, and I go to the comments box and start typing, more or less automatically. I press "post" and think, is that wise, after all? Who knows if what I have typed is defensible beyond a reasonable doubt? It sure hasn't been vetted by the version of me that hasn't had a few drinks and isn't looking for distractions from trying to write his second novel, that's for sure. Thank God it's only in the comments, which very few will ever bother to read. But then I think: that is a cowardly attitude. Why write it if you don't want anyone to read it? So I decide I'll post it as an item.

None of this would ever have happened if I hadn't been trying to write my second novel and if I hadn't had a couple of drinks. But wishing won't make it not so, so here is the unedited text. I have to say, I am in basic agreement with myself on it, unless it turns out that I am totally wrong. In which case, I plead diminished capacity and will ridicule myself unsparingly when next I am sober. If, I mean.

Josh, I agree with every point you make. I can't speak for Weidner, but I doubt he's saying that science is bad, or that its claims to allow us to know things are false, or that there's no such thing as natural material beauty. Who would say that?

I think what he's getting at, and I see what he's saying, is that the radical materialists in this sort of (generally idle and unproductive) discussion tend to give short shrift to some pretty important human experiences, to the degree that the picture of man that arises from reading the arguments, even when they are persuasive on this or that point, looks a little... inhuman. If surrender to the irrational is inherently bad, then curing it would involve eliminating a hell of a lot more than just "religion"; our lives as human beings would be totally unrecognizable. That's what happens when you mistake an analogy or a thought experiment for an actual description of reality: reality recedes.

He's also right, I think, that "secular rationalism" is not an exact synonym for science, even as that word is sloppily used these days; it's not even the same kind of term, really. And just speaking for myself here, I don't think "secular rationalism" is by any means a bad thing, though when it seeks dogmatically to replace Everything it does end up as a poor and kind of sad substitute for philosophy, like many ideologies. (Is it an ideology? - an interesting question that I'm not going to take a position on. Not necessarily, but some people seem to employ it as one.) When you take it one step further even than that, and enshrine the scientific method as the sole, exclusive means for judging the validity of any thought or sentiment about anything, including ethics, including metaphysics, including spirituality, even including abstractions that are experienced and perceived through intelligence and theory rather than only observation, even including culture itself and its endless undifferentiated array of complex interleaving layers of the products of the whole of human experience (with optional arbitrary exceptions for stuff you happen to like, e.g. art, brotherly, sisterly, fatherly, and erotic love, justice, etc.) and decide that all other ways of viewing, experiencing, engaging, and describing reality are worthless and, indeed, pernicious, I think you do have something like a full-blown ideology on your hands. At this level of alienation from reality as it is experienced socially (at least), this quasi-ideology is still, narrowly, "rational;" yet its picture of Everything is, from the perspective of this human anyway, strangely incomplete and not a little bizarre. Unreal, in fact.

The objection to this description is that it is a straw man, that no one really thinks this way, that it's a caricature. I agree that it is. So why do people speak this way in places like the Butterflies and Wheels comments box? I do not know. But for some, including some very smart and learned people, this quasi-ideology is so intoxicating that they can easily stumble into the most obvious failures of logic and common sense without even realizing it, e.g. the righteous, surprisingly tenacious skepticism about Norm's simple point that something that can be correctly analyzed as having good and bad qualities has good as well as bad qualities. Wait, really? Even if the thing with good and bad qualities is predominantly bad? Even if I have convincing reasons for disliking it very much? Yes, dear, even then.

That's why I find much of the yammering of sanctimonious atheists (how sad and yet wonderful that this term is even intelligible!) not only unpersuasive personally, but far more irritating than their atheism (which I don't mind and to which they have every right and for which they indeed have much empirical ground); or their often sententious claims to infallible rationalism (which can be amusing enough to redeem it, thank God, if I may quaintly, in the manner of my forefathers, so invoke the teapot in the sky); or even their "arbitrary dealing" (to use Norm's phrase) when trying to belittle willy nilly this or that aspect of something of which they disapprove. These matters (the nature of reality, the existence of God, the meaning of faith, all of it) are worthy of debate and for skeptical examination, of course. But that's not what has been happening over at the Ophelian echo chamber. What is going on is, I think, more akin to politics than philosophy. As Wes has pointed out, it is much like the situation I've written about before, where communities of believers lull themselves into the complacent, implicit assumption, never seriously questioned except perhaps as a stunt to create the appearance of evenhandedness, that their tastes and prejudices alone are valid and that those who oppose them must be blind, brainwashed, or evil. E.g., Berkeley, "liberals" vs. "repug-licans," real vs. evil, free spirits vs. sheep, saved vs. damned. Do they really believe that? Maybe not, but Lord do they ever talk as if they do.

It has to do with culture, it has to do with class and politics, with the joy and thrill of the sense of belonging to an elect and often allegedly beleaguered minority, with the excitement of creating the kind of stir a teenager can cause by standing up at Thanksgiving dinner and announcing his intention to become a Communist (as I once did, believe it or not) or a priest or a punk or a Republican, or what have you. It also has to do, or it usually does, with sincere aspirations on some level to be a participant in a movement for a better world, to right the wrongs of the past, etc. But what it doesn't seem to have much to do with, as I see it, is anything "real" (if I may use the term) in this case actual science. It's more like it is science's publicist. I think the claim to have cornered the market on the truth is a hypocritical and self-defeating strategy. It implicitly belies the laudable liberal rhetoric at every turn, though admittedly it does no real harm. (And I'll add the obvious observation that most people can appreciate and benefit from the virtues of science in this sense without feeling they must attempt to destroy every other sort of belief system or mode of understanding. Those who feel like this are a small, and very weird, group.)

Anyway, in a social milieu where taking pot shots at a belief system or a given social or political culture and ridiculing those who belong to it or espouse its values are rewarded with hugs and cookies every single time without exception and without much regard to content, people will do it for its own sake for the sheer pleasure of it. We have all done it. It's fun to do. It's also not an edifying spectacle, nor is it anything to be proud of. It is suspect when anyone does it, but of course particularly ironic when it is being done by people who ostentatiously array themselves in the pomp and circumstance of Secular Rationalism.

Posted by Dr. Frank at February 3, 2006 02:40 AM | TrackBack

Remind me to buy you some booze, because your drunkblogging is actually edifying.
Like you said to Josh, I agree with all of your points, Dr. Frank, but it's not exactly clear you addressed the central point Josh made: it's silly to claim that those of a secular persuasion have in essence sacrificed beauty for 'truth' or some flickering shadow thereof. "secular-rationalism that is often considered (somewhat mistakenly, I think) as "science" renders those lives less worth living, less sweet, less beautiful, that's excluded from the argument." How else are we to take this? I suppose he prefaced it with an exculpatory 'if,' but still. Is my life 'less worth living,' because of this outlook? As you say, that may not be what he meant; it doesn't seem possible, does it? But it certainly reads that way, at least to two of us. And it's because I agree so strongly with the rest of what you said that I think it's important to challenge this notion that beauty, mystery, etc. are callously swept up and placed in the 'irrational' box, never to be heard from again, as long as one doesn't have religious faith. That's bizarre, but you've got to admit, it's a fairly commonly held view.
I don't paint. I can't draw, and even if I could, I don't have the talent to translate the world/emotion/the ineffable onto canvas. I don't choose to learn, either (I don't think - no, I know it wouldn't do any good). It's one method, one path to beauty, sweetness and even spirituality, that I've kind of forsworn. But that needn't make my life an ornament-free, an-aesthetic temple to the purity of bauhaus minimalism ("and minimalistic, unadorned walls are just another form of art! Ha!").

As for the second graph of Weidner's, the whole 'Science IS faith,' thing, well, I agree and disagree. No, science isn't everything, and your point that proponents often,"enshrine the scientific method as the sole, exclusive means for judging the validity of any thought or sentiment about anything," is valid. But I don't think we can lump the scientific method in with every other claimant to judge the validity of things either. The scientific method's strength is the creation of a common ground - a guide to get to some piece of information that is absolutely universal. That's a conscribed goal, admittedly; that's not the sort of thing that's inspired great poetry, but it's also incredibly beautiful in its humble, ecumenical way. I have no idea how to understand, much less feel, what you felt in that Prague cathedral.
So. Yes, both, not either/or. Echo chambers. Unbridled hubris. Your post is a monument to the sort of tolerant-bemusement-at-the-human-condition world view that makes life so damned interesting. I just didn't want Josh's important point lost.
Next time I'm in Oakland, I'm buying the first round.

Posted by: marc w. at February 3, 2006 04:03 AM

Thanks, Marc. I'll definitely take you up on that!

You know, I guess I should have mentioned that I don't believe "religion" and "religious" are the ideal terms for the sort of thing I'm getting at. (I'm using them because that's the term and sense used by the Ophelians.) What I really mean, and what I think they really mean, too, ultimately includes everything in human experience that comes from beyond the mundane. That includes "religion"/faith/belief as well as philosophy as well as the kind of aesthetic or erotic rapture that is, I admit, the most contentious/counterintuitive element of the complex I'm assuming. (I think it counts, though, obviously, since I put it in that category.) I don't mean that you have to be "religious" in order to experience transcendence (or maybe I should say: to have experiences beyond the alleged purview of "scientific man.") But my claim is that if you don't see the common ground between these variants of, let's be plain, spiritual experience, you're missing something essential about them. Still of course, the ability to experience the transcendent in any form is never in any way dependent upon a person's institutional religious affiliation or lack thereof. I thought that was self-evident.

But if I'm right that there is a cultural-political (rather than a philosophical or a rational) source for the Ophelians' antipathy, the hostility toward "religion" (but, if I read them correctly, not philosophy, aesthetic rapture, love, justice, abstraction itself and the like) makes a kind of sense. But there is at least an apparent contradiction/inconsistency there, or so it seems to me. Of course, the moral argument in the here and now, i.e., that people with religious faith do harm that always outweighs whatever good they might do (as difficult as that would be to quantify, much less prove) still stands and cannot be dismissed. Where it goes wrong is when this elides into an existential or cosmological proposition. I mean: if the effects of the experience, the thoughts, beliefs or actions of those who have had (or believe themselves to have had) the experience are undesirable or morally indefensible, the experience is held to have no validity. But as far as I can see, saying that the world would be better off if people didn't believe in God or have experience of the transcendent is not the same as saying that they have not had the experiences.

The contretemps would disappear (ironically, in view of the Ophelians' credo) if they would relinquish the exclusivity of their "truth claims." But I don't believe it's a matter of truth in the end. It is rather, a feature of the fascinating, invigorating, yet ultimately inconsequential culture war.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at February 3, 2006 06:43 AM

True. Personally, I kind of hope the Ophelians' (i love the way blogs slough off neologisms like so much logodandruff) don't relinquish their claims, though they may be phrased more elegantly/politely/humbly. I guess what I'm getting at is the fact that the universality of the secular humanist crowd is no small feat. I may recognize your claim to have had an experience -beyond anything I recognize- in a prague cathedral. I don't know how to *get it.* So now I can either attempt to verify some bizarre 'truth value' of that claim by standing in another cathedral/same cathedral/watching religious TV and seeing what happens, or I could alternatively list the alternate, materialistic explanations for said event, or I could accept the truth of the account at face value. I prefer the third, because it's fun, and because I don't have a cathedral handy.
But the fact that such moments of transcendance are by their nature private put them in a different category of review.
I appreciate the point that non-religious appreciation of 'spiritual' phenomena are of the same ilk as religious experience, but I worry that other, more deeply religious believers, might not agree. And I believe those are the people Ophelia was arguing with, if only because it's a hell of a lot easier to argue with those people.
I think it's basically settled that the type and intensity of the debate you're talking about is essentially political. That level of smugness doesn't just appear, ex nihilo, without politics. (to be clear, the smugness I'm talking about is the comments, not her post, which I'm quite torn about.) But there's also just plain old reaction to exclusivity, and that's what I was getting at. Everyone does this, of course, and everyone has their own exclusive form of transcendance, whether its the Tate fucking Modern, Notre Dame or the megachurch in a suburb near you. Or baseball. We can value the search for transcendance, and beauty and truth in all of these endeavors, but as should be plain to everyone, these claims engender strong feelings on both sides. I've come to accept the fact that the Tate is a beautiful thing to many people despite the evidence of my own two eyes. If I can do that, there's hope for all of us.
A drunk comment to a drunk post. Cheers.

Posted by: marc w. at February 3, 2006 07:54 AM

In way simpler language, simply because I can't hang with youse guys in the intellect department, I want to point something out. The point was sort of made by Dr. Frank that "obviously" feelings of transcendence aren't limited or confined to one particular religious dogma or experience. But when you actually experience religious, spiritual transcendence, don't you believe that the path you took ist he only way to get there? I speak only from personal experience. Until recently, I was an agnostic who leaned heavily towards the explanation that religion is an understandable and inevitable process of the human condition: we are smart wnough to know that we are going to die. that's a tough cookie to chew on, and it makes sense why we would make up belief systems to deal with this scary fact.
However, as shocking as this to everyone who knows me on a personal level, I recently "found jesus". Peekaboo! The change inside of me is undeniable. I have control over addictions and compulsions I never had before, things seem so clearer to me, I am happier and more productive with my work, etc.
My sister asked me, half-seriously, if I hate gay people now. (The answer is no, my opinion on that didn't change at all, i'm still totally "whatevs" about it)
So, to me, I firmly believe that Christ is the only spiritual truth and path to redemption of the soul. It is crazy for those words to be typed by my fingers, because even the part of me that used to entertain the "possibility" of other-worldliness would only consider a Unitarian point of view where "God" doesn't play favorites. Now I'm like, "yo you gotta get born again if you want to go to heaven." And I mean it.
I am rational enough to leave the door open to the possibility this is all just hope and cultural delusions and the power of belief. But I really don't believe that.
So, my point is, some people that experience religious transcendence don't believe you can do it by "losing yourself" and then "finding yourself" on top of a mountain, or bending yourself into a pretzel and thinking about Buddha, or dancing naked around a campfire chanting "nanaboogananabooga da da".
There is another, more restrictive yet equally valid, viewpoint out there...

Posted by: chris riordan at February 3, 2006 12:50 PM


You're all right, dude, you're all right, so brilliant, yet so free of pretensions, and man are you ever funny!

My commenting routine is similar to yours. I start out thinking I something to say and keep typing until I reach the point of "what the hell am I talking about". Then I think about whether I just made any point at all, but, what the hell, hitting post is easier than editing. But now you and marc have made me feel validated, but then again you were both drinking. Oh well, it's good enough for me.

I would never deny that people have had transcendent experiences. I'm just not convinced that they have anything to do with God, at least in the loving creator benefactor kind of way. 50 years ago we didn't understand what sadness was, we're only now learning what form thoughts take in the brain (a scientologist once tried to recruit me with a humunculus arguments). To me it seems likely that it is all in your head so to speak.
Again, we just disagree on the probabilities for reasons too complex and chaotic to even understand.

Does ascribing a different meaning to the same experience make it less transcendant? I don't know. I'll give you a definite maybe on that.

As for the "Ophelians" (I second Marc's emotion about internet neologisms) they're like anyone else only more so. I think people come to conclusions pretty early on and do a lot of post hoc rationalization until it finally becomes impossible to do so. Cognitive dissodence can stretch pretty far and we're all hardly perfectly rational truth-seekers. Like I said before it's complicated. Human thought or belief is a chaotic system and it's damn near impossible to explain why I way evidence the way I do and you do the way you do. I think we at least recognize that and these people don't. At the level of emergent properties associated with societal interaction, that makes them what we refer to as "dicks." In other words, we don't need to worry about those people, they're dicks.

"with the excitement of creating the kind of stir a teenager can cause by standing up at Thanksgiving dinner and announcing his intention to become a Communist"

I once told my parents the same thing. Kids.

Posted by: josh at February 3, 2006 02:17 PM

I meant

"weigh evidence"

Posted by: josh at February 3, 2006 02:21 PM

Me no philosopher. Many big-worded long-winded paragraph make head hurt. Me go make fire.

Posted by: Caveman at February 3, 2006 02:33 PM

It's funny, Josh. Someone can have a vague transcendent experience and appreciate it and be worthy of hanging with you and Dr. Frank, yet if their transcendent experience involves a message that this is the ONLY way, they are unworthy "dicks." Who is being small-minded here? Before you answer, keep in mind Dr. Frank is a Christian. I'm not trying to be a jerk, but in all honesty - does that knowledge make it seem more credible and respectable to you? Sorry for "outing" you Frank...

Posted by: christopher at February 3, 2006 03:02 PM

Chris, I would argue that what you have found is faith. To think that Jesus is the only way to God requires you to discount every other person's spiritual/religious transformation not based on Jesus...and believe me they DO exist. The concept of faith, on the other hand, can reconcile the paradox. I would argue that your transformation comes from your new found ability to BELIEVE in your own nascent potential...or at least your belief that somehow a higher power is working through you to unlock that potential. Either way, you BELIEVE that the end result WILL occur (control over addiction, higher energy level, etc.) In this way, Jesus is the catalyst for your transformation. However, ANYTHING can be a catalyst for someone's transformation, which is why SOOO many religions exist. Everyone falsely ascribes universal properties to their catalyst instead of realizing that the underlying faith is the true universal.

Posted by: Chuck at February 3, 2006 03:21 PM

I was just being glib.

Posted by: josh at February 3, 2006 03:36 PM

Even before Frank started posting on the subject, I've been reading the Bible and doing some general research on Jesus. I'd like to share some things that I personally did not know, but are interesting nonetheless:

The Old Testament was very violent and GOD dealt harshly with those who did not obey him while Jesus was very gentle.

Most other religions acknowledge Jesus. He is considered as a prophet in Islam and is mentioned in Budddhism. It is hypothesized that in the lost years of the Bible, Jesus may have studies in Asia with the Buddhists.

Jesus' part in the Bible is relatively small but perhaps the most important. His story covers 200-something pages in which it is repeated as told through the eyes of different witnesses Matthew, Mark, Luke, John etc.... while the Old Testament is 666 pages long.

Hell is not predominantly mentioned, but alluded to on several occassions.

The concept of going to Heaven to me is muddy at best. The way I read it is different than what is taught in Church. It reads to me as if when you die, you die but at the time of the rapture if you are rightous in God's eyes/Believe in the Son, Jesus then you will be resurrected in both body AND soul so that you may go to live in the Kindom of Heaven with the Father and Son. I'm still quite confused on this and need to consult with some clergymen.

I could go on.....but these are some intersting points

Posted by: Zaphod at February 3, 2006 04:00 PM

Zaphod, cool. I'm going to crack the spine on my Bible one of these days.

Chuck, I can't argue against your argument. As I sort of said earlier, I leave myself open to the possibility my transformation was simply the byproduct of belief i.e. faith. You can never prove that and I guess that is the whole concept of faith. However, the feeling I got (this all happened last weekend!) was more than just peace and transcendence, it was a boost of clarity and knowledge as well. Part of that was that "Jesus is the only way to true salvation of the soul and spirit." I know, I know, it sounds so corny. Two weeks ago I would have snickered at anyone who said such a thing. I do believe that people can use other methods for self-improvement, but when it comes down to your soul and the afterlife, my experience leaves me with the firm belief that this the only way. For me, anyway. Hey, if God exists he could be so gnarly and magical that he could be the same God but in different forms with different rules for different people. I don't personally believe that, but I think it is a valid theory.

Another thing to keep in mind is the definition of transcendence. It is not merely enlightenment or "getting deep" - it is transcending the human condition. That is a huge deal, and I wonder if some of us here are just talking about "moments of zen" or whatnot.

Posted by: christopher at February 3, 2006 04:34 PM

Yes, of course: I don't mean to say that all spiritual experiences are equally powerful or significant. Faith is a big one, revelation is a big one. (It's a personal matter for me and I don't want to share publicly the crazy stuff I've been through in that area, but trust me it has been high-impact.) I was just trying to get at why people like the Ophelians apply their rigorous rational test to some spiritual experiences and not others.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at February 3, 2006 05:43 PM

Revelation, huh? Interesting. Again, I'm sorry for outing you for being Christian but you had either told me in an email once or I read it on this blog so I thought it was a matter of public record. I am not even being sarcastic when I say this, but it is not a powerful selling point for a self-described "punk" musician. Marketing reasons.
Personally, I would love to hear this "crazy-stuff" you refuse to talk about. I tried to figure things out in my mind and couldn't even get close (someone later told me there is a scripture explaining why you can't do that)but I was inspired to keep searching for faith by all the intelligent people I knew of who did believe in God. I want to hear their reasons and experiences, because guys like Bill Maher are doing a good job at advocating their position. He almost had me convinced!
Although I can understand one's reluctance to go around ranting and raving about the invisible wizard in the sky he knows is up there, it gives "our side" a great disadvantage in public debates when we are half-embarrased by our position and the other side thinks they are fucking Nietsczhe for saying what they say. again, not saying you are "embarrassed", I was speaking in general terms. You do, though, obviously have your own reasons for keeping things personal and private.

Posted by: christopher at February 4, 2006 12:13 AM

I should also mention I jumped into this argument very late and don't even know what an "Orphelian" is, sorry for my confusion on what you were saying.

Posted by: christopher at February 4, 2006 12:18 AM

don't worry, christopher. The term will be obsolete by tomorrow and will have been replaced by something else.

Posted by: marc w. at February 4, 2006 12:29 AM

Yeah. Though I quite like "ophelians" and will hate to see it go. "Dawks" isn't bad, though...

Posted by: Dr. Frank at February 4, 2006 12:33 AM

That's not bad. I'd offer "War-Dawks" but I'm not sure people would get the 1812 reference.

Posted by: josh at February 4, 2006 12:56 AM

I am proud to say that I don't get that reference.

Posted by: christopher at February 4, 2006 01:30 AM

This is a little note mainly to Zaphod, if he may read it. A bit off-topic maybe, sorry. I just happened to have this quote handy, itīs of a Spanish theologist (E. Miret Magdalena) quoting another (González Carvajal):
"The Bible doesnīt come close to claiming man is an addition of body and soul. Thatīs a platonic and cartesian idea, never christian. We clearly say in the faith profession (/declaration of faith?) that we donīt beleive in the inmortality of the soul but in the resurrection of the dead".

Me, plain atheist, donīt get too much into those metaphysics, and I liked Pen Jiletteīs atheist rant I recently found in the internet and copyed in my blog. But cheers to all, piuos and impious.

Posted by: Javier at February 5, 2006 10:41 PM

You guys make it sound like Jesus is gonna come back and it's gonna be like the Thriller video or something. I hope you're all wrong and heaven is a place everyone goes where you can eat unlimited amounts of free pizza and never get fat and everytime you turn on the radio the exact song you want to hear is playing.

Posted by: chris riordan at February 6, 2006 04:00 AM