Ross Douthat and David Bentley Hart tell us how to find religious truth

One would think that Ross Douthat would have liked Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent New York Times piece describing a “numinous” experience she had when younger—an experience that could have been due to fatigue and hypoglycemia. From that she suggested that there may be something truly mysterious in the universe: another form of consciousness, perhaps something beyond materialism.

But the problem was that Ehrenreich not only ruled out God (Douthat is religious), but said that —horrors!—maybe science could address these mystical experiences. As she noted:

Is science ready to take on the search for the source of our most uncanny experiences?

Fortunately, science itself has been changing. It was simply overwhelmed by the empirical evidence, starting with quantum mechanics and the realization that even the most austere vacuum is a happening place, bursting with possibility and giving birth to bits of something, even if they’re only fleeting particles of matter and antimatter. Without invoking anything supernatural, we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe. There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.

Now the type of science she’s suggesting here is obscure, but never mind.  To Douthat this kind of talk is a no-no. He not only wants his God, but he wants it to be immune from empirical testing so that it can forever remain a possibility—or, for him, a certainty. Therefore, in his new opinion piece in the Times, “How to study the numinous,” he tells us where Ehrenreich went wrong. Douthat’s argument draws heavily on David Bentley Hart’s new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. As you may recall, Douthat promoted that book as the one that atheists must come to grips with since it makes the best argument for God.

I’ve just finished that book, and it’s not the best argument for God. It in in fact a series of recycled arguments for God couched in fancy and often arrogant language. Hart, however, claims that his book is not a proof of God’s existence, but merely a distillation of what God means to all religions (he claims it’s pretty much the same for every faith: a transcendent Ground of All Being that is above yet immanent in all things, and not anthropomorphic—though he calls the god a “he” and says it’s capable of anthropomorphic feelings like love). But most of Hart’s book is really devoted to adducing evidence for God. He brings up the cosmological argument (something had to get it all started) as well as the existence of things like consciousness, rationality, and the sense of the beautiful that, he says, could never ever, be explained by naturalism. Indeed, at times he argues that beauty, consciousness, and rationality are God, so that there can be no way to disprove his/its existence at all. 

But most of Hart’s book is a sophisticated series of old but updated God-of-the-Gaps arguments, which have gained traction because of a). Hart’s exceedingly refined version of God, one not shared by most believers, and b). the well-written (and sometimes pedantic) reiteration of old arguments about consciousness and the like that probably appeal to a new generation of believers. Further, Hart doesn’t argue for the existence of his God (the Eastern Orthodox Christian one), so we are stymied in understanding why he holds the faith he does. He’s cagey when dealing with his personal beliefs: when it comes to what he thinks about miracles, for example, he simply says he’s “pulling the veil” in front of his thoughts. 

But back to Douthat. Hart’s influence on him is clear in the following dismissal of science’s attempts to understand the supernatural (my emphasis):

Which is not to say that science is helpless in the face of all supernatural claims and possibilities. Its methods are very good at debunking the claims of people — professional psychics and alleged practitioners of telekinesis, most notably — who insist that they have rendered the numinous predictable and found a way to consistently harness invisible powers to visible ends. But this debunking is possible because of what’s being claimed by the Uri Gellers of the world — a pretty-much-consistent power, with mostly-consistent results, that’s under direct human control. When you’re dealing with experiences that nobody really claims are predictable, and that at least seem — as Ehrenreich suggests — to represent a kind of breaking-in from outside rather than an expression of human gifts or willpower, the same debunking logic just doesn’t apply.

So by all means, neuroscientists should seek to understand mystical experiences, as they should seek to understand every other sort of experience … but absent a revolutionary breakthrough in the science of consciousness, for the foreseeable future the best way to actually penetrate any distance into mystical phenomena  will probably continue to be the twofold path of direct investigation and secondhand encounter. By direct investigation, of course, I mean personal prayer and meditation, which is the major path to knowledge if the major religious traditions are right about what’s going on here, and probably a useful path to some sort of knowledge even if they’re not.

In this way he immunizes the search for God against empirical considerations. Forget about the argument from evil, unanswered prayer, or God’s notable absence in the world.  You can’t apply science to God because he reveals himself in unpredictable ways.

But that’s specious because, although personal revelations might be unpredictable, the kind of God that emerges from them, if such revelations are really a source of truth, should be pretty consistent across religions. It isn’t.  His second mistake is to argue that “personal prayer and meditation” (I almost wrote “medication”) are “paths to knowledge.” Again, if they are, then that “knowledge” should be consistent among revelations. And again, it isn’t. I won’t reiterate how the basic tenets of different faiths conflict, except to give one: if you’re a Muslim and think that Jesus was the son of God and was resurrected after being crucified, you’ll go to hell. (Muslims also think that the Jesus who was crucified was an imposter—a stand-in for the real prophet.) But if you’re a certain type of Christian, you think precisely the opposite: that accepting Jesus as God’s son and savior is the only way to get to heaven.

Anyone who maintains that prayer and meditation are paths to knowledge about the divine has no idea what “knowledge” really means. Douthat’s caveat—that maybe, if this path is wrong (how would we know?), there’s still “some sort of knowledge” to be salvaged—doesn’t hold water. Which knowledge is to be accepted, and which trashed?

The “secondhand encounter” path to understanding God is William James’s path: study the lucubrations of mystics and those who have experienced revelations. As Douthat says:

In the case of the numinous, this means reading actual mystics and religious texts, reading novelists and poets and essayists who take up these experiences and themes, exploring theology and philosophy, delving into the sociology and anthropology and psychology of religious experience, and so on.

This comes up against the same problem: while all these people have had “mystical” experiences, they differ in content, so how can “truth” be distilled from them, particularly if one can get such experiences from drugs, electrical stimulation of the brain, or fatigue? (Read Michael Shermer’s experience of alien abduction during a long-distance bike race.)

Finally, Douthat quotes a passage from Hart’s book—one that occurs near the end—that really annoys me. Remember that Hart’s book was promoted as the one book that, as atheists, we simply had to read to truly come to grips with the meaning of God.  But now the bar is set higher! 

It’s remarkable how many recent “explorations” of religion (cough, Daniel Dennett, cough) don’t seem to grasp this point, which David Bentley Hart’s recent book distills as follows:

“… even if one’s concept of rationality or of what constitutes a science is too constricted to recognize the contemplative path for what it is, the essential point remains: no matter what one’s private beliefs may be, any attempt to confirm or disprove the reality of God can be meaningfully undertaken only in a way appropriate to what God is purported to be … In my experience, those who make the most theatrical display of demanding “proof” of God are also those least willing to undertake the specific kinds of mental and spiritual discipline that all the great religious traditions say are required to find God. If one is left unsatisfied by the logical arguments for belief in God, and instead insists upon some “experimental” or “empirical” demonstration, then one ought to be willing to attempt the sort of investigations necessary to achieve any sort of real certainty regarding a reality that is nothing less than the infinite coincidence of absolute being, consciousness, and bliss. In short, one must pray: not fitfully, not simply in the manner of a suppliant seeking aid or of a penitent seeking absolution but also according to the disciplines of infused contemplation, with real constancy of will and a patient openness to grace, suffering states of both dereliction and ecstasy with the equanimity of faith, hoping but not presuming, so as to find whether the spiritual journey, when followed in earnest, can disclose its own truthfulness …” [my emphasis]

Nope, now it’s not enough just to read a book to be able to say with authority that we’re atheists. No, we have to engage in long-term prayer, for crying out loud!

But how are we atheists supposed to do that? How can we pray to a Ground of Being we don’t accept? I simply couldn’t do it. How are we supposed to pray and leave ourselves open to grace with “the equanimity of faith” when we don’t have any faith? Does this mean that Sam Harris, who has meditated for years and yet remained a nonbeliever, is the only one of us who qualifies as an expert atheist? And what about all those believers who once prayed ardently but then rejected their faith? Since they fulfilled Hart’s requirement, what do we make of them?

This demand for prayer is asking too much, and is a sneaky and deceptive move on the part of Hart. First he claims that he’s not giving evidence for God. Then he tells us, at length, that the evidence is readily available to everyone: the existence of consciousness, rationality, the love of beauty, and the fact that the universe had to begin somehow. Then, finally, he says that we can’t fully absorb all these arguments until we fall on our knees and make ourselves open to the God we don’t believe in—and for a long time, too.

Forget it.  If God wants us to know him, he wouldn’t require this kind of three-step tomfoolery. And if we do what Hart says, and pray for a long time, and yet till remain atheists, what’s the next hurdle he’ll raise before us? It’s turtles all the way down!

Sorry, but I’ll just suspend belief until God makes himself more obvious. As Delos McKown said, “The invisible and the nonexistent look very much alike.”

 

121 Comments

  1. gbjames
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    sub

  2. H.H.
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    He’s cagey when he deals with his own specific beliefs; when it comes to miracles, for example, he simply says he’s “pulling the veil” in front of those beliefs.

    Pay no attention to the beliefs behind the curtain!

  3. Greg Esres
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    “No, we have to engage in long-term prayer, for crying out loud!”

    Most of us have done that and found that it didn’t do anything. Atheists are those who acknowledge this fact and the theists are the ones who devote the rest of their lives to explaining away this data.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      ‘Long-term prayer’ reminds me of another phrase, what was it?

      Oh yes. ‘Sunk costs‘.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted April 14, 2014 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        (snort!) One of the pivotal concepts I got from my finance courses. There are hints in almost all subjects about how to think better.

      • Chris
        Posted April 14, 2014 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        As an occasional poker player, this explains one reason why some people are better at it then others are: once you put your chips in the pot, they are no longer yours.

        If you think that they are, you’ll get burned as you aren’t dealing with all the evidence.

        Sometimes you just have to fold!

    • Tulse
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. I am willing to bet a fairly large sum of money that most atheists did not come from areligious upbringings. Heck, in my own Catholic youth I was pretty religious, and made several visits to a Trappist monastery. It’s not like I didn’t try praying — it’s just when I eventually listened I didn’t hear anything back.

      • gbjames
        Posted April 14, 2014 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

        “…most atheists did not come from areligious upbringings.”

        Wait… did not come from a religious upbringing, or did not come from an areligious background?

        • Tulse
          Posted April 14, 2014 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

          Didn’t come from an areligious background — were not raised as atheist, but in some religious tradition.

          In other words, most atheists know from experience what religion is like.

          • gbjames
            Posted April 14, 2014 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

            Yes.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 14, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

        Even life long atheists like myself may have given it a shot after coming into contact with religious people but ultimately figure, “nah, I was right the first time”.

        • Posted April 14, 2014 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

          There’s only so many times you can call someone and have it ring out before you conclude they’re not there. Or maybe God’s just dropped his phone between the couch cushions and it’s on vibrate.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted April 14, 2014 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

            Oh that dirty, dirty god. :)

            • Posted April 14, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

              Always pictured Anthropo-God as a bit of a slob. Sitting about the house in a stained singlet and shorts, chomping a cigar, unplugging the phone because it’s just those damn tenants again, always moaning about something.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted April 14, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

                Yeah and also with a tattered terry cloth robe that doesn’t quite close right.

              • Posted April 14, 2014 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

                *shudder*

              • Posted April 17, 2014 at 10:11 am | Permalink

                Shades of Ralph Furley, who does appear to be the better landlord!

  4. Mattapult
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    “If one is left unsatisfied by the logical arguments for belief in God, and instead insists upon some “experimental” or “empirical” demonstration…”

    I don’t have to go to great personal, or even philosophical, lengths to prove, say pizza exists. Why would find in God be soooo difficult when all he wants is for us to believe in him.

    Odd that all the places believers tell us to look, don’t yield results.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      Your pizza analogy and the difficulty of “God” somehow conjured up an imagery of a pesky fly trying to get at my slice.

      Well, I guess it’s as good an analogy of apologists magicking up “gods” as anything.

  5. gravityfly
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Excellent post, Jerry! If God exists, then why isn’t he/she/it more obvious to everyone?

    • Filippo
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      “I’ll be easy to find
      When Love comes looking for me,
      I’ll stand there, with my arms out,
      So that I’ll be easy to see;

      No hide and seek, no guessing game
      Will I play,
      When Love comes in and speaks my name,
      I’ll say, “Right this way!”

      The stars may fall from the sky,
      The moon may fade out of sight,
      But angels will be smiling
      And my love will light up the night,

      Though fools may hide their feelings
      And tell us Love is blind
      As for me
      I’ll be easy to find.”

      (On the other hand, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”)

      Pretty, this old pop standard, but, whether it’s Religion, Luv, Bizness, or Friendship, I’m a skeptic. I’m tired of, and am resolved to never again be scammed by, some con artist.

      • gravityfly
        Posted April 14, 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

        Love that Johnny Mathis!

        • Filippo
          Posted April 14, 2014 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

          Bet you know the lyrics to “It’s Not for Me to Say.”

          • gravityfly
            Posted April 14, 2014 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

            Oh yeah…a golden oldie!

  6. Kurt Helf
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Douthat also implicitly dismisses (or blithely ignores) the experience of sincere believers (e.g., Matt Dillahunty) who engaged in this sort of long-term prayer and study only to become atheists.

    • Posted April 14, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      “That darkness surrounds me on all sides—I can’t lift my soul to God—no light or inspiration enters my soul…what do I labour for? If there is no God—there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true.”

      “The loneliness of the heart that wants love is unbearable. Where is my Faith?”

      “Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God. … The torture and pain I can’t explain.”

      – Mother Teresa

      …to which the god-botherers reply how admirable it was that despite feeling like this for 50 years, she continued her *good works*. (shudder) Her spiritual advisor let her know that such feelings only helped her to understand the sufferings of the people under her *care* (shudder again). That’s the power of prayer for you.

      The human capacity for self-deception is indeed infinite.

      • Kingasaurus
        Posted April 14, 2014 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

        —”Her spiritual advisor let her know that such feelings only helped her to understand the sufferings of the people under her *care* (shudder again). That’s the power of prayer for you.”—

        I remember that Sam Harris had a great response to the Mother Teresa situation (paraphrasing):

        “When even the doubts of experts are seen as confirmation of the factual truth of faith claims, then what could possibly disconfirm it?”

        • Tulse
          Posted April 14, 2014 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

          And that’s absolutely the key point — Douthat and Hart don’t offer any possible way to disprove their claim. There is nothing that anyone could observe that would cause them to change their mind.

      • Kurt Lewis Helf
        Posted April 15, 2014 at 4:52 am | Permalink

        +1

      • Mark Reaume
        Posted April 16, 2014 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        “The human capacity for self-deception is indeed infinite.”

        It’s Self-deception all the way down!

  7. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Seems to me Hart’s argument comes down to a version of the sunk costs fallacy. To find God, you must commit enough of your life to the search that failure would be unthinkable. So you keep on looking till you find something you’re willing to pin that label on, and that, by definition, must be The Truth, or else the entire journey was wasted.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

      You got in 4 minutes before me (up above).

  8. Myron
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    As for the alleged veridicality of mystical experiences:

    “The mystic, however, may claim not an outright identity with his object but only an immediate experience of it. Traditionally this object is God, and the experience is somehow a guarantee of veridicalness. ‘They have had their vision and they know…’ Now, we are not at all compelled by our principle to deny that the mystic in point of fact has had an immediate experience of God, but we are compelled to deny that he is therefore in a position to judge impeccably that it is God of which he has an immediate experience. One of the most tragic delusions of humanity is that the vivid urgency of an experience certifies whatever hypothesis about that experience may be concomitantly entertained by the experient.”

    (Williams, Donald Cary. “The Innocence of the Given.” 1933. Reprinted in Principles of Empirical Realism: Philosophical Essays, 159-176. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas, 1966. pp. 167-8)

    “From a scientific point of view, we can make no distinction between the man who eats little and sees heaven and the man who drinks much and sees snakes. Each is in an abnormal physical condition, and therefore has abnormal perceptions. Normal perceptions, since they have to be useful in the struggle for life, must have some correspondence with fact; but in abnormal perceptions there is no reason to expect such correspondence, and their testimony, therefore, cannot outweigh that of normal perception.
    The mystic emotion, if it is freed from unwarranted beliefs, and not so overwhelming as to remove a man wholly from the ordinary business of life, may give something of very great value—the same kind of thing, though in a heightened form, that is given by contemplation. Breadth and calm and profundity may all have their source in this emotion, in which, for the moment, all self-centred desire is dead, and the mind becomes a mirror for the vastness of the universe. Those who have had this experience, and believe it to be bound up unavoidably with assertions about the nature of the universe, naturally cling to these assertions. I believe myself that the assertions are inessential, and that there is no reason to believe them true. I cannot admit any method of arriving at truth except that of science, but in the realm of the emotions I do not deny the value of the experiences which have given rise to religion. Through association with false beliefs, they have led to much evil as well as good; freed from this association, it may be hoped that the good alone will remain.”

    (Russell, Bertrand. Religion and Science. 1935. Reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. p. 189)

    • krzysztof1
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      How do you get italics into a post here?

  9. Posted April 14, 2014 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    So many ways to respond. I will go with this question to team Douthat/Hart: how do you explain the existence of former believers? These are people who were ‘in the know’ about the existence of God b/c they did all the prayers and contemplation, and then at some point they became convinced it was sham because of something they read in WEIT or in The God Delusion. How could added knowledge and improved critical thinking skills cause someone to discard a ‘truth’ with another ‘truth’?

    I have a hard time understanding how two ‘truths’ could be enemies. One ‘truth’ must be … a delusion.

    • Chris
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 4:48 am | Permalink

      They weren’t true believers, though!

  10. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for visiting The Asylum for us! It goes to show that old sects dies with Hart.

    That the scam artists asks for “just another step in this direction, trust me” is standard fare. And it is Enlightening how it differ from empirical investigation, where all can participate and all can share in the deep, but delicious, Non-mystery.

    So Long and Thanks for All the rotten Fish, apologists, but no thanks! Here we part ways.

    I’ve just finished that book, and it’s not the best argument for God: it’s a series of old argument for God couched in fancy (and often arrogant) language. In fact, Hart argues that his book is not a proof of God’s existence, but merely a distillation of what God means to all religions

    Recycled garbage. Color me not surprised.

    So by all means, neuroscientists should seek to understand mystical experiences, as they should seek to understand every other sort of experience … but absent a revolutionary breakthrough in the science of consciousness, for the foreseeable future the best way to actually penetrate any distance into mystical phenomena will probably continue to be the twofold path of direct investigation and secondhand encounter. By direct investigation, of course, I mean personal prayer and meditation, which is the major path to knowledge if the major religious traditions are right about what’s going on here, and probably a useful path to some sort of knowledge even if they’re not.

    [...]

    If one is left unsatisfied by the logical arguments for belief in God, and instead insists upon some “experimental” or “empirical” demonstration, then one ought to be willing to attempt the sort of investigations necessary to achieve any sort of real certainty regarding a reality that is nothing less than the infinite coincidence of absolute being, consciousness, and bliss. In short, one must pray: not fitfully, not simply in the manner of a suppliant seeking aid or of a penitent seeking absolution but also according to the disciplines of infused contemplation, with real constancy of will and a patient openness to grace, suffering states of both dereliction and ecstasy with the equanimity of faith, hoping but not presuming, so as to find whether the spiritual journey, when followed in earnest, can disclose its own truthfulness …”

    Meaning that Douthat has no answer to the question of what evidence he has.

    Prayer studies shows that prayer has no effect. And so Douthat’s understandable wish is to immunize himself from such “direct investigation” by demanding that it should part way from investigation and control of uncertainty.

    Instead Douthat proposes that one should pray without constraint. First, where is his evidence for that it works? And without such evidence, no constraint means no testing means Not Even Wrong.

    • Posted April 14, 2014 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      Here’s the other thing: in an experiment, you have to at some point stop, analyse your data and see how you did (and see if the experiment was worth doing/is worth continuing). It seems that Hart’s “pray, like, lots and lots” experiment doesn’t have any sort of end point – or even some interim juncture where you can see if your prayers are doing anything besides making your knees hurt. Except maybe death.

      It’s like a Nigerian email embezzlement scam: “We’re almost there – I just need another $5000 to bribe another official … “

  11. Harrison
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    The trick when dealing with Christians who try to use this airy notion of god is to bring the conversation back around to Yahweh. We’re not talking about any fanciful type of god you can imagine, we’re talking about a very specific god with a very specific book, and we can easily prove it to be wrong about almost everything of importance.

  12. Kathleen
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    “Pray harder” is the priest’s answer. The most annoying thing about the Christianity that I was brought up with is the constant refrain that everything good comes from God, but humankind are responsible for all that is wrong. So, in another variation, if you don’t know God, it’s your fault.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      “everything good comes from God, but humankind are responsible for all that is wrong. ”

      How does man create hurricanes and earthquakes?

      • Posted April 14, 2014 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

        Somehow, it’s supposed to have something to do with Teh Ghey. Unless, of course, it has something to do with dark-skinned people selling their souls to Satan, or witches, or birth control, or….

        b&

        • Posted April 14, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

          Yes. It’s Teh Ghey.

          Present day luminaries Michelle Bachmann and Pat Robertson have explained some of the details of the mechanism: when good things happen in the lives of homosexuals who live in, say, Massachusetts, god, in his divine omnibenevolence, uses a tsunami to drown children in Indonesia.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted April 14, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

          Feminism and socialism too.

          • Posted April 14, 2014 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

            Never mind socialism — hard-core conservatism (in the form of the Heritage Foundation’s own health policy) is one of the prime factors….

            b&

  13. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    It’s a bit odd for a traditional believer to be appealing to William James (or Karen Armstrong), since William James distrusted how people !*interpreted*! mystical experiences and held that all concepts of God/divinity were a complicated mixture of the imaginary and real (and that some concepts of God are very toxic and unhealthy).

    On how to interpret personal transcendent experiences, William James is on the other side of the fence from Sam Harris & Bertrand Russell (re BR’s “Mysticism and Logic” and “A Free Man’s Worship”), but not !*very*! far. James is a genuine supernaturalist. but James doesn’t think we can have any clear !*map*! of such things and refuses to buy into any specific metaphysics or creed.
    As such, James referred to his philosophy as “piecemeal supernaturalism”.

    This gives William James an answer (though IMO not convincing) to Jerry’s query as to why religions conflict, but one that a Catholic like Douthat will not accept even though Douthat likes to commend James as a model for how to study religion properly.

    IMO this makes Douthat willing to invoke William James when it !*suits*! him, but he is shifting the implications of James work a bit away from James’ own outlook (and not telling us that he’s doing it!!!)

    • Chris
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      Precisely.

      They seem to throw their own co-believers under the bus of excessive generality.

      Entertaining if not particularly edifying!

  14. Posted April 14, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Slightly related: Here is a lecture by social psychologist Ara Norenzayan describing some of his findings about the evolution and sociology of religion.

    One thing he noticed in his research was that the more abstract one’s conception of god is, the less they think said god cares about morality and/or punishes bad behavior. So someone who believes in a completely abstract “ground of being” god more than likely also believes that this god doesn’t care too much about morality or punishes evildoers. Whereas someone who believes in a god that cares a great deal about morality simultaneously believes that said god is also much more anthropomorphic. At one end of the spectrum is the god of the philosophers/Sophisticated Theologians(TM), at the other is the god of fundamentalists.

    • Gordon
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      This sort of abstract god that is seen as having little do with real life is presumably the one that appears in polls by people who claim they are “spiritual” or that “there may be some higher power.” That is they are in some twilight zone between religion and atheism but probably not really caring as religion is pretty much a non-event in their lives. However they provide a sufficiently large group for the religious try to pull into their fold and boost the number of “believers” for their Templeton funded work

    • Posted April 14, 2014 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

      Well that’s unsurprising.

      It stands to reason that the god of moralizers will be more anthropomorphic since their god is just a projection of themselves and their opinions.

  15. Posted April 14, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    But most of Hart’s book is really spent giving evidence for God, using the cosmological argument (something had to get it all started) as well as the existence of things like consciousness, rationality, and the sense of the beautiful that, he says, can never be explained by any naturalistic phenomenon. Indeed, at times he says that beauty, consciousness, and rationality are God, so that there can be no way to disprove his/its existence at all.

    Aristotelian Metaphysics, the God of the Gaps, and the apotheosis of the banal — the same old rotting un-cleaned tripe they keep trying to sell to us as menudo.

    And that bullshit about they only way to know that the gods are real is to brainwash yourself into believing in them….

    b&

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      A big question (NOT in the Templeton sense!!) is why Aristotelian metaphysics persists after the rise of Newtonian physics and even moreso after modern biology.

      Newton made it quite clear that we don’t need teleology (purpose-driven explanations) to explain causality in physics and Darwin did pretty much the same for biology.

      It has been argued that originally Aristotle largely set the stage for evidence-based thinking in Western thought as opposed to Plato who went the route of metaphysical speculation (or as Jerry Coyne puts in “making stuff up”), although one would have to say other ancient Greeks did this as well as Aristotle.

      (A recent book argues this although in a manner much too over-broadly overstated and it has ridiculous sweeping generalizations. It’s by a conservative guy at the American Enterprise Institute: “The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization” by Arthur Herman. It’s interesting, but I’d like to see a better book written exploring the same paradigm.)

      Nonetheless in spite of some solid observations in the field of biology (with mistakes), optics and geology, and some good insights into politics, Aristotle remained solidly teleological in his thinking- things exist for a purpose, and were created by agency. Due to biology from the 19th century to the present, this hypothesis is no longer necessary.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 14, 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

        Because medieval Christians loved Aristotle and suppressed other the work of other ancients in favour of him. Aristotle was on the outs in the ancient word already. They continue this church tradition that relied on, well tradition and not scientific understanding.

      • Posted April 17, 2014 at 10:17 am | Permalink

        Actually, not quite. Aristotle’s god doesn’t create, at least in the way that traditional theologies would have it. The telos is sort of in-built in the universe, in his view. This and the waffling about materialism is what makes me say the church *bastardized* Aristotle, Plato already having been absorbed. We have records, in part, of Epicureans, Stoics and other more naturalistic schools, but for the most part they are *gone*, because they weren’t valued, or perhaps in some cases, destroyed.

        As for why it persists – the institutions which need it to have power, including Christianity as a whole and many specific denominations in particular. Also because secular metaphysics is not taught except to philosophy students, usually. In my view this as much a part of science education as anything specific, but I learned it first from my father and Scooby Doo and the like, not anywhere at school.

  16. wanderobo
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Interesting that Douthat “feel(s) under-equipped for the journey of the true mystics” and offers his own second class experience of reading stuff and interpreting it in a way that allows him confirm his beliefs. Silly if you ask me! Anyone who has been down the path of the mystics knows it is like Ray Lewis pumping himself up in the locker room by himself so he can go out and pump his team up. There is nothing on the other side in that journey but the things deposited there by the journeyer. One can keep depositing stuff and then declare the stuff God, but any reasonable person who knows himself knows when he is conning himself. I surmise from the quote Douthat uses of David Bentley Hart that Hart has conned himself beyond the ability to recognize his own con. To wit: “no matter what one’s private beliefs may be, any attempt to confirm or disprove the reality of God can be meaningfully undertaken only in a way appropriate to what God is purported to be…” Hart purports God to be what he himself deposits in his God bucket and then proves it by looking into his God bucket! Poor man!

  17. Greg Esres
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    “spiritual discipline that all the great religious traditions say are required to find God. ”

    By admitting that empirical investigation cannot find God, he’s admitting that God doesn’t do anything in the real world. The only effect that God can have is endowing someone with a numinous experience every now and then, and he seems to do this irrespective of that person’s religious belief.

    This is somewhat less impressive than appearing on a slice of toast.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      +1

  18. Frank Bartell
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful humor in the Onion. “Biologists confirm that God evolved from a Chimp Deity”
    Read @

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/biologists-confirm-god-evolved-from-chimpanzee-dei,35755/

    • Pliny the in Between
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Thx for sharing this. I’m still laughing.

  19. Pliny the in Between
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    What irks me is that many (if not all) of these types of so-called mystical encounters can be reliably duplicated either through suggestion, injury, pathology, or pharmacology – which at least suggests a reasonable possibility of naturalistic cause.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. Douthat and Hart’s suggested “test” is only going to show what religious experiences FEEL LIKE. No matter how long and hard you pray and meditate — no matter how sure and certain you get that you’ve touched and experienced God — you’re not going to be the best person to interpret what your experiences really are.

      This is the big con job of religion (well okay, one of many): grant ultimate power to the believer. YOU are the judge. If the objective Truth can only be subjectively known, then the checks and balances against error are all inherently internal. Scientific analysis is simply ruled out in advance by complaining that it’s so unfair that scientific analysis rules out subjective confirmation in advance. Being unbiased is so biased. That’s not how religion works!

      Yeah. That’s not a feature; it’s a bug.

  20. Posted April 14, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I’m a former Greek Orthodox Christian. I did enage in prayer and study for years, and eventually became an atheist.

    Is Hart saying people like me don’t exist?

    I’m puzzled by what drives people like Hart to convert to my former denomination. I think the Roman Catholic Church has a far richer intellectual tradition. The same could be said for Anglicanism-Episcopalianism or some other liberal protestant sects. Almost all “sophisticated theologians” tend to come from these sects.

    The “God”, Hart speaks of is largely unrecognizable to the average Eastern Orthodox parishioner. This branch of Christianity produces very few notable “sophisticated theologians”, except, perhaps, for the recently converted.

    • Chris
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 4:51 am | Permalink

      “The “God”, Hart speaks of is largely unrecognizable to the average Eastern Orthodox parishioner.”

      Awesome, thanks for confirming that! Gloriously ironic, isn’t it?

    • Posted April 15, 2014 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      It may be true that Roman Catholic Church and some others have richer intellectual traditions, but the sophisticated theologians in these religions are either in utter denial about reality, or they’re lying. No one can pretend even for a minute (and Jerry has posted studies backing it up) that the average believer in these churches views God as anything remotely like what Hart depicts.

      Furthermore, and this is where the sophisticated theologians really ramp up on the double talk is that the core of Christianity, no matter how sophisticated you want to make your God argument, is that God incarnated himself as a human, and then rose from the dead. He didn’t figuratively rise from the dead, he literally rose and then “ascended body and soul into Heaven.” Where is Heaven and where did the body go? Anyway you slice it, there’s some egregious violations of Physics going on there and a claim like that is fully within the realm of science.

      • Posted April 15, 2014 at 8:37 am | Permalink

        Chris Buckley,

        I totally agree. Besides all these issues, the way Greek Orthodoxy is practiced in my family, and also for lots of other Greeks, they are Greek first, and “Christian” a distant second. The same often seems true for all the other ethnic-based eastern Orthodox churches, which are generally “autocephalus”, which means their head bishop doesn’t answer to a higher clerical authority outside of their own church(there’s a lot of controversy surrounding this). This is why at certain times in history and perhaps even now to some degree, they often act more like nationalist organizations than “universalist” churches.

        I’m reminded now of this big mess at my church when I was growing up, though I don’t remember it that well because of how young I was at the time. After the death of their beloved priest, they found a replacement in this much younger priest. Basically, most of the parishioners at my church, mostly old-fashioned Greek immigrants quickly came to hate him. I think it was because he was too “liberal” for them, so they eventually drove him out.

        Hart reminds me of this priest. It’s a good thing for Hart that he’s an ivory tower theologian within Orthodoxy. If he was a priest having to deal with ordinary parishioners, he’d be driven out or there would be a petition sent to the patriarch to have him excommunicated for his “crazy” ideas.

        I chuckled when I first read that Hart was eastern Orthodox. I thought to myself “Oh, one of THOSE Orthodox Christians!”, because I find it both baffling and amusing that ANYONE not raised Orthodox would want to join some of the world’s most insular Christian denominations.

        Hart is part of this strange phenomenon of often protestant or Catholic westerners converting to Orthodoxy. Some get disappointed and leave, but many stay on. I’m not sure why they do this, but it may be due to how Orthodoxy is perceived as being more ancient and therefore more “authentic” than most other denominations. The beautiful icons may help too.

        Indeed, some of the most ancient church buildings in and around the Holy Land tend to be associated with eastern Orthodoxy, some still even having church services, almost uninterrupted since the time of Jesus. Of course, none of this makes Orthodoxy in particular, or Christianity in general true. But this may be compelling to impressionable protestant pilgrims from the U.S who visit Israel and realize just how “boring” their own denomination back home is when visiting the various ancient holy sites and churches where Jesus or his apostles preached or performed miracles. If they should visit these sites during the holidays associated with them, when there are so many other worshippers attending, it can be an incredible life-changing experience. It’s the closest they will ever get to meeting Jesus Himself(in their own minds).

        Eastern Orthodoxy, through its control of the holy sites allows pilgrims to practically “live” the Bible; practically all other denominations merely have you read it. Should these protestants convert, it is not like they are totally changing their religion, they are simply changing their denomination, to the one that is so much cooler!

        I think this is why Christians from other denominations convert to Orthodoxy.

        • Posted April 15, 2014 at 9:45 am | Permalink

          Switching denominations within Christianity (or really from any religion to another) is something I have a hard time understanding. Your reasons outlined above lay out what amounts to a bunch of emotional reasons to switching to Orthodoxy, but a common thread throughout religion is that whatever religion has some unique claim to the truth (about whatever).

          But, the conversion process often starts as some at least some rudimentary questioning about elements of the faith (here, it has a strong parallel to the path out of religion for many of us). Yet, the answer to these questions often leads to a subjective interpretation of what feels right, which is then reapplied to the objective truth game.

          Logically, the initial questioning should inevitably lead to giving up religion altogether, because the whole facade eventually falls down with regard to any of the supernatural claims religions make.

          I think one big issue with the sophisticated arguments is that it there are some internal consistencies (at least far more than there are with fundamentalism) combined with ambiguities that make pinning down the argument and debunking it a lot more difficult. The Catholic Church has a particularly rich history of this. Note these lines from the Catechism (they’re so ironically close to a major breakthrough here):

          36 “Our holy mother, the Church, holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason.”11 Without this capacity, man would not be able to welcome God’s revelation. Man has this capacity because he is created “in the image of God”.12

          37 In the historical conditions in which he finds himself, however, man experiences many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone:

          Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. The human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful.

  21. Rhetoric
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    “Nope, now it’s not enough just to read a book to be able to say with authority that we’re atheists. No, we have to engage in long-term prayer, for crying out loud!”

    Yup, exactly. Basically you have to already believe in it for it to ‘work’, and if it doesn’t then clearly you were doing it wrong.

    • uncleebeneezer
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      Yup. Shorter Douthat: You want evidence? just believe and then you’ll see it.

  22. moarscienceplz
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    “In short, one must pray: not fitfully, not simply in the manner of a suppliant seeking aid or of a penitent seeking absolution but also according to the disciplines of infused contemplation, with real constancy of will and a patient openness to grace, suffering states of both dereliction and ecstasy with the equanimity of faith…”

    Also, you must spin like a Dervish while praying. If you don’t, you will never achieve the sacred knowledge that God is in fact a Tasmanian Devil who lives in Burbank.

  23. Sastra
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    “… even if one’s concept of rationality or of what constitutes a science is too constricted to recognize the contemplative path for what it is, the essential point remains: no matter what one’s private beliefs may be, any attempt to confirm or disprove the reality of God can be meaningfully undertaken only in a way appropriate to what God is purported to be …

    No, I’m afraid Daniel Dennet has your number. This is belief in belief, the assumption that wanting and trying and searching and straining to believe in God is a high point in one’s own development as well as the history of humanity. The fundamentalists say the same thing as the Sophisticated Theologians: when you experience God you just know. A science which continues to ask questions and explore alternatives is constrictive.

    Curiosity, clarity, and consistency undermine faith.

    He brings up the cosmological argument (something had to get it all started) as well as the existence of things like consciousness, rationality, and the sense of the beautiful that, he says, could never ever, be explained by naturalism. Indeed, at times he argues that beauty, consciousness, and rationality are God, so that there can be no way to disprove his/its existence at all.

    And here’s Daniel Dennet again and his concept of the deepity — a word, phrase, idea, or concept which has an interpretation which is true but trivial, an interpretation which is extraordinary but false, and a blithe commitment on the part of the Deep Person to go back and forth between the two as if they’re the same thing. Find the connection and hold on to it.

    Is God an explanation for our sense of beauty — or is God actually the sense of beauty itself?

    Yes!

    Believe in God now? Then you’ve got it!

    If you’re still skeptical and all picky-picky about the difference between a hypothesis and a reified abstraction, however — then you aren’t looking for God the right way.

    Once you remove the desire to believe in God, not even the sophisticated apologetics work. They are set on this question:

    How can we find, discover, and experience God?

    They are not tuned for this one:

    Does God exist?

    They blur those questions together. That isn’t taking “God” seriously; it’s taking themselves too seriously.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      And oh, I forgot to say it:

      Category error as an art form.

    • gbjames
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      Pssssst… That “Dennett”! ;)

      • Sastra
        Posted April 14, 2014 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

        Yes, that’s Dennett.

        It’s tea time so I took one. ;)

        • gbjames
          Posted April 14, 2014 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

          Hey! You stole my “‘s”, too! ;)

    • Posted April 14, 2014 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

      They’re just begging those Big Questions.

      • Posted April 14, 2014 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

        The religious have lots of experience on their knees begging, so it’s hardly surprising….

        b&

  24. Posted April 14, 2014 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    The God = Beauty gambit is about the most persuasive, I think.

    The idea of phi being fractally repeated all over the joint as well as being aesthetically beautiful to us is about as close to the hand of “god” as it gets, I suppose.

    Personally, I think it has got to do with protein folding or something.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Ok freaky — up thread Chris ended with “sometimes you just got to fold” and I thought about make a protein folding joke there, then saw your comment. Must be sorcery again.

      • Filippo
        Posted April 14, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

        “Here’s a quaternary – call someone who cares.” (with apologies to Travis Tritt)

  25. Larry Gay
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    I love it. Remember folks, don’t pray “fitfully”, but “according to the disciplines of infused contemplation”. You know he’s on the back foot because he doesn’t talk directly about religion. He talks about “religious tradition”, tacitly acknowledging that he is now a little uncomfortable with the simple, actual word, “religion”. Some people go one further step away from religion and talk about “faith tradition”.

  26. Kevin
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    These “gods that don’t do anything” bug the crap out of me.

    If it’s so all-fired apophatic, then why do you insist it wants a relationship with you?

    Or what it considers appropriate head-gear?

    I was once sincerely challenged by a theist to say a simple prayer “asking” god to come into my heart. This, he said, was all that was required. I did — and god didn’t.

    Now I’m being told I have to spend HOURS of my time doing it? After all of the other HOURS I’ve spent?

    You’re always doing it wrong until you come to their conclusion — never the other way around.

    • susanlatimer
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 12:29 am | Permalink

      >You’re always doing it wrong until you come to their conclusion — never the other way around.

      That is all of it right there.

  27. Gordon
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    “he claims it’s pretty much the same for every faith: a transcendent Ground of All Being that is above yet immanent in all things.”

    Well it has to be doesn’t it otherwise the bullshit becomes too obvious and open to ridicule.

  28. Filippo
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    sub

  29. krzysztof1
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    I am reading Ehrenreich’s _Living with a Wild God_ now. She is an excellent writer (I also read _Nickel & Dimed_) with a basically skeptical outlook. What strikes a chord with me in the current book is that I had the same “shattering” experience that she had, when I was in my early 20s. I only had it once, but she writes that she had it many times and possibly was able to “make it happen” to some extent. Mine caught me completely off guard; it was like a switch somewhere in my bsorain turned off–a switch that controlled the maintaining of the illusion of meaning. I was seeing people and things but they lost all their significance to me for a few moments. It was unnerving.

    Another similarity in our backgrounds was reading, especially reading our favorite book while we were supposed to be reading in our textbook during class. This we both accomplished by hiding the preferred book behind the textbook. I thought geography was boring, but the book was large–large enough that I could hide my library copy of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island behind it. I prided myself on figuring out a way to escape detection as the teacher patrolled the aisles. If I saw her coming I would slide both books toward my chest, so that (with a bit of practice) I could slide Jules off the edge of my desk into my lap! Unfortunately I got caught anyway, but her reprimand was kind of half-hearted, so I didn’t suffer too much!

    • krzysztof1
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      “bsorain” = “brain”. Sorry about that!

  30. madscientist
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Oh no, don’t tell the hat doubter about Carl Sagan. In his book ‘Demon Haunted World…’ Sagan show how science can indeed investigate such claims – worse still, all of his examples are summaries of other peoples’ work. Scientists have been investigating those things for at least 40 years.

    As for Douthat’s technique: there’s more truth to be discovered with a proctoscope and it’s more pleasant and honest work than dabbling in religious studies.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      It drives me crazy when science confirms something, say that meditation changes the way the brain works and has certain long term effects, and people smugly proclaim, “such and such mystic knew that way before science” No! That person or group of people experienced something; science confirms the sensation is real, not imagined. The evidence of science is more reliable than someone’s opinion. Scientists are accused of not investigating claims then when they do and show it is BS the evidence is rejected and when they do and show there is something really going on there, they are ridiculed. You can’t win.

  31. cory
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    A few notes: First, someone mentioned Bertrand Russell’s essay “Mysticism and Logic.” It is in the public domain and available online, so I wanted to link to it:

    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25447/25447-h/25447-h.htm#I

    Second, since Hart is Eastern Orthodox, it bears mentioning that one branch of that religion violently suppressed the results of mystical experience:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imiaslavie

    If Ross Douthat wants me to spend my life in search of genuine mystical experience to believe in god, why doesn’t he spend his life in search of a mystical experience to believe in Name-Worshiping or Sufi or whatever? If he doesn’t feel like he wants to spend more time seeking those type of mystical experience, he should tell how long he has spent. Since I was raised a believer, I have probably spent more time seeking a spiritual connection with god than he has looking into Sufi-ism.

  32. kelskye
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    From a believer’s point of view, I can understand why they would focus on religious experience as being the best indicator for God. What I don’t understand, however, is why they expect that to be an epistemically-valid approach beyond themselves. Private experience is useless because it is indistinguishable from the illusion of it. Yet when it comes to claiming that our private experiences have a public reality, we need to grasp onto public evidences. It might seem like this approach is never going to be sufficient for something like God, but why should we expect anything less?

    Ghosts, aliens, cryptids, astral projection, etc. all have that same private experience which has the individuals convinced of their reality, yet the private experiences can only be made sense by how it relates to other beliefs we hold true. The focus on arguments and public evidence is precisely because they give confidence to our private experiences.

    Of course, if private experience really were the path to God, then it’s on God to give anyone the private experience they need in order to see the reality of God. Anything less is ad hoc handwaving.

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      Actually, i think a lot of god-botherers DO think private experience is the path to god. So if you don’t have a numinous experience of god, you just haven’t figured out how to do it properly.
      In fact, I can’t remember the details to allow me to Google it, but I am sure I’ve heard of some congregations who are instructed to fake the feeling of god until it comes to them naturally. Kind of like self-hypnosis.

      • kelskye
        Posted April 14, 2014 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

        It was Pascal’s advice anyway. And one that’s quite common among apologists. William Lane Craig argues that a sincere seeker will have a revelation from God, and that revelation will give epistemic warrant to the historical truth of the resurrection.

        • Sastra
          Posted April 14, 2014 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

          Sincere seekers almost by definition have loose criteria for what counts as a ‘hit.’ Faith isn’t really thought of as believing on insufficient evidence; it’s thought of as more like the realization that the evidence IS sufficient. It has always been sufficient. One only needed the heart to see it.

          Once they’ve gone into a narrative framework which involves receptivity and relationships, they think the whole evidence-towards-a-conclusion work has been finished, left behind and below while a new story is played out … and it’s so beautiful. Atheism is like the rude interruptions of a heckler.

        • Posted April 17, 2014 at 10:21 am | Permalink

          I asked a Catholic once who used religious experience as the “best argument” for the existence of god. A few exchanges later, I found that he hadn’t even had one himself, and was really using the experiences of others at second hand – including those of non-Christians as “getting something right”.

  33. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    I am prepared to reveal unto Douthat the secret of the universe, which was imparted to me by the highest, most impeccably trustworthy source:

    The walls are brown.

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      LOL!

  34. ascanius
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    keep on demanding credible evidence!

    they’re on the run and increasingly defensive.

    i wish more high profile scientists would issue provocative statements along the lines of hawking’s “no god necessary.” these would attract media attention and help in the long process of deprogramming american religious indoctrination.

  35. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    As several have said, you have to waste an enormous amount of time praying in order that you be able to ignore the obvious fallacies in your arguments. Only sinking so much into the stupid can you continue to be stupid.

    …and has all this prayer and meditation made Ross Douthat a better man? Nope, he is still a conservative asshole.

  36. Observer
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    Starting at around the age of ten I prayed every day, sometimes many times per day. I prayed for signs that God existed. I prayed for forgiveness for the completely natural impulses I felt as I went through puberty, because I believed them at the time to be shameful. I prayed fervently and earnestly until around the age of thirteen. Then it dawned on me that all I was doing was participating in a mass delusion, that it was foolish to be ashamed of sexuality, and that there weren’t going to be any signs.

    I will defend the ability of prayer to provide a kind of knowledge, however. Self knowledge. I learned that I didn’t actually need that superstition, and I moved on.

    • Posted April 14, 2014 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      Excellent post. All of this drivel is nothing but the No True Scotsman Fallacy dressed up in finer clothing. No matter what you did, say or do, you’re wrong if you don’t come to the same certain conclusion about the Ground of Being. This philosophy may actually be the rotten core of religion. It is despicable.

  37. Posted April 14, 2014 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    “Least willing to undertake the type of mental and spiritual discipline” it takes to find God, he says? If you can deal with my somewhat long winded, yet cathartic post, and tell me that I didn’t try this, you’re deluded in more ways than one. And no, I don’t expect those of you who had a more secular upbringing to put yourselves through this kind of torment to come to a decision about a nonexistent being.

    http://new.exchristian.net/2014/04/religion-to-hell-with-it.html

    • Posted April 14, 2014 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      Insightful; thanks for sharing, Chris.

      “Do we watch people in Hell suffer when we get to Heaven?”

      Or, stronger, “Do we watch people we loved in Hell suffer when we get to Heaven?”

      If we do, how can we be “living in bliss” (as my wife was taught)? (Unless dying turns us all into sadists.)

      But, even if we don’t, how can we live in bliss knowing that those we loved aren’t in Heaven, but must be suffering in Hell?

      /@

      • Posted April 14, 2014 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

        Insightful; thanks for sharing, Chris.

        “Ditto.”

        “Do we watch people in Hell suffer when we get to Heaven?”

        Or, stronger, “Do we watch people we loved in Hell suffer when we get to Heaven?”

        Stronger still: is there evil in Heaven? If no, why is there evil here on Earth? And if “free will” is the answer, is there free will in Heaven? If so, it’s not the cause of terrestrial evil; if not, what’s the point of having it here?

        …and then there’s Epicurus….

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Posted April 14, 2014 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

          This line of reasoning naturally culminates in the question, “why have flawed life here on Earth if the ‘divine plan’ is to fix it all later?” Of course, this does little to answer the previous questions. Suppose that in heaven, we all forget about our past loved ones who have been irrevocably damned. If I spend 60 of 85 years with my wife and she happens to receive punishment while I am redeemed, but my memory of her is erased, what kind of paradise is that? The essence of who I was on Earth, who and what I loved, is gone. Is this bliss; or, better yet, is this even me? The whole thing is incoherent, but that’s nothing new. By the way, this concept of forgetting those who are damned is real and in complete opposition to the “watch them suffer” philosophers.

          • Posted April 15, 2014 at 7:55 am | Permalink

            …and, of course, all these monumental battles between competing theologies are conducted bereft of evidence….

            b&

  38. Newish Gnu
    Posted April 14, 2014 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    “In short, …” Followed by more than 70 words.

    Douthat doesn’t know short. Or shit.

  39. Konrad
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    In some Books on Western Occultism call this “fake it until you make it”. The idea being that if you pretend that magick works everntually, You will convince yourself that it does and come to ernestly believe it.

    As a conditioning technique this undoubtably works. But it does not give you insights into the true nature of reality.

    The probelm here is that I, and many others can give an alternate explanation for Hart’s expirences. One that is based in fairly well understood psychology.

  40. Posted April 15, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Odd, isn’t it, that after achieving mystical union with God after all that prayer and medication, it apparently never occurred to Hart to ask Him whether he came in one person or three, one nature or two, was begotten or not begotten, etc., and it never occurred to God to tell him. Indeed, Hart informs us in his book that he’s “bored” by such distinction. No doubt he will be a great deal less bored if he gets it wrong and spends the next quintillion years frying in hell as a result, just for starters.

  41. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    Even by Douthat’s standards, this piece is pretty over the top.

    Someone should really tell him this kind of writing would be more effective if he were old enough to Harrrumph properly while reading it aloud to his Bible studies group.

  42. Posted April 17, 2014 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    Hart and Douthat and all other believers just wants us to pretend like they do. Faith is pretending.


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  2. […] I learn more from the commenters at this site than they learn from me. When I put up a post like Monday’s piece on Ross Douthat and David Bentley Hart’s views of God and religion, I pay attention to the readers’ comments, seeing whether I’ve made a misstep, been […]

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