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.”