Publicity: I espouse nonbelief in National Geographic, and a podcast with Godless Spellchecker

The round of books and articles connected with Faith versus Fact continues, and I’ll highlight some reviews later as they come in. I recognize that readers may not want to look at all this book-related stuff, as some of it is repetitive, but I’m putting the links here for those who wish to know what is posted.

A while back, National Geographic kindly interviewed me for their “Book Talk” section, and has just posted my Q&A in an article called “In age of science, is religion ‘harmful superstition’?” I was grateful to appear in its pages, as this is not traditionally the kind of thing that National Geographic handles. But remember when you read it that it is the unedited transcript of a phone conversation, which explains why my answers aren’t in perfect prose. (Of course, they would have been were I Steve Pinker!) Here’s a bit of the Q&A (I’ve asked them to correct the spelling of T. S. Eliot):

Do you have a spiritual life? If so, what does it look like?

Spiritual is an amorphous term. I study evolution and every day I read something that strikes me as amazingly wonderful. If you call that spiritual, then, yeah, I’m spiritual. Richard Dawkins says the same thing. Spirituality can run the gamut from amazement at nature to a feeling that there’s something beyond the material universe.

But I don’t like the use of the word “spiritual” unless you define it clearly. I am spiritual in the sense that I have this awe and wonder before nature. I love James Joyce and T.S. Elliott, I’m moved by Dylan Thomas. It doesn’t have anything to do with God. It has to do with a commonality of feeling prompted by nature and the arts. So I prefer to use the word humanist rather than spiritual. The minute you say you’re spiritual, people automatically start thinking you’re religious.

*******

And Stephen Knight, aka “Godless Spellchecker,” had an hourlong conversation with me about the book—but also about other stuff, notably the idea of “trigger warnings,” whose discussion is at the end of the podcast.

Godless Spellchecker’s website is here; you may remember this blogger and podcaster as one of the people who exposed C. J. Werleman as a serial plagiarist (see here and here)—a fine piece of detective work.

 

 

36 Comments

  1. Posted June 1, 2015 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    “you may remember this blogger and podcaster as one of the people who exposed C. J. Werleman as a serial plagiarist (see here and here)—a fine piece of detective work.”

    I claim the prize!

    • Posted June 1, 2015 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      This prize, that is. 🙂 “Now if I ever mention Werleman again on this site, the first person to point it out will get an autographed and felid-illuminated (by me) copy of WEIT”.

      • Posted June 1, 2015 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        +1!

      • Posted June 1, 2015 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

        Oh sweet Jesus. I forgot. Well, I’m a man of my word, so send me your address and what kind of cat you want in it!

        Oy gewalt. Hoist by my own petard!

        • Posted June 1, 2015 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, but you know your readership. Somebody’s going to remember that sort of thing, and no way is said somebody going to pass it up.

          Congrats, Coel!

          …come to think of it, you may well be getting something of a special copy — perhaps the last official prize award of WEIT?

          b&

        • Posted June 1, 2015 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

          Cheers Jerry, will email you.

      • Jeff Rankin
        Posted June 1, 2015 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

        Ha, nice job (and memory)!

      • darrelle
        Posted June 1, 2015 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

        Nice catch Coel. Dagnabit!

    • Posted June 2, 2015 at 3:43 am | Permalink

      Well done – someone is paying attention!

  2. Raymond Freeman-Lynd
    Posted June 1, 2015 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    I thought for one moment that you were espousing a nonbelief concerning the existence of National Geographic. I wondered what they had done to have elicited such a punishment!

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted June 1, 2015 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      Determinism implies that National Geographic is an illusion. It’s really just particles of ink and paper obeying the laws of physics.

    • stuartcoyle
      Posted June 2, 2015 at 2:09 am | Permalink

      I made exactly the same error when I first read the title of this post.

    • stuartcoyle
      Posted June 2, 2015 at 2:09 am | Permalink

      I made exactly the same error when I first read the title of this post.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted June 2, 2015 at 2:49 am | Permalink

        As did I, exactly the same. 🙂

  3. rickflick
    Posted June 1, 2015 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    On listening, I found the podcast very compelling. And don’t sell yourself short, your responses were really quite Picturesque in formulation.

    • Rick
      Posted June 1, 2015 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      Did spell check change Pinkeresque into Picturesque? That’s comically apropos.

      • rickflick
        Posted June 1, 2015 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

        Pinkeresque was the intent, but, glad you like it this way too.

  4. Barry Lyons
    Posted June 1, 2015 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Great podcast.

    As for The Beatles, it might be fair to say that George Harrison got a little squishy as time went on. While I’m almost certain he had no truck with the Abrahamic faiths, he did grow closer to Hinduism specifically and Eastern mysticism generally. Lennon was a little suspect in other areas in his later years (he and his wife were fond of astrology). But I think McCartney and Starr were the most flat-out secularists of the four.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted June 2, 2015 at 7:16 am | Permalink

      And (statistical significance aside) what does that tell us about woo-belief vs. longevity, or indeed being victim of homicidal attacks?

      Too soon? It always will be, I know.

  5. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted June 1, 2015 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Nice interview. I suppose this will not make it into the print version of NG; Francis Collins’ bit of proselytization was much shorter.

  6. Steve Pollard
    Posted June 1, 2015 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Just great. I will be passing it on; and I’m sure it will catch on.

  7. gunnerkee19
    Posted June 1, 2015 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, do you consider your musical experiences spiritual in any way? By that I mean your enjoyment of particular music and songs that you frequently share with us? I often feel that my own enjoyment of very specific songs played at very specific decibels gives me a feeling like none other, and on those rare occasions when I get to experience my favorite music in a live venue it is as spiritual as I ever get. At any rate, I just wondered if you, or anyone else, felt similarly.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted June 1, 2015 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      Jerry, do you consider your musical experiences spiritual in any way?

      The problem, which I think JC points out very well in this interview, is that “spiritual” is an ambiguous word. Sometimes its usage implies supernatural elements. Other times it can just mean “emotional” or some such.

      • gunnerkee19
        Posted June 1, 2015 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        True. I was just wondering if Jerry, or anyone else, considers listening to music something beyond just enjoyment. I ask because to me it seems so, but maybe I’m just being emotional.

        Back in olden times when I attended church regularly, I don’t know that I was ever a complete or true believer, although I pretended to be I suppose, but even then the music of the various churches I attended would make my spirit soar. Later, when I discovered rock music, the experience was quite similar, especially for those songs that seemed to touch some sort of primal chord with me.

        • Reginald Selkirk
          Posted June 1, 2015 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

          … but maybe I’m just being emotional.

          That’s the only shortcoming I can see with substituting the word emotional; sometimes it is perceived as being pejorative.

          Other words or phrases which you might use which do not entail the supernatural:

          emotionally uplifting
          resonant
          inspirational
          motivational

          At any rate, I see this as a vocabulary problem.

          • gunnerkee19
            Posted June 1, 2015 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

            Thanks, Reginald. I am always open to improving my vocabulary.

        • darrelle
          Posted June 1, 2015 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

          “I was just wondering if Jerry, or anyone else, considers listening to music something beyond just enjoyment.”

          Oh my, yes! Not much can move me emotionally more than music. More quickly or intensely.

        • Posted June 1, 2015 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

          Terry Pratchett quote about “Spem in alium” goes here.

          /@

        • Posted June 2, 2015 at 8:51 am | Permalink

          “Spiritual” is a really bad word to use for such things. But, as a musician, I’ll happily note that music is a most powerful and complicated phenomenon that functions at levels from the intuitively emotional to the aesthetic to the intellectual — with the best examples doing all that all at once.

          There are those who apply the, “spiritual,” label to such phenomenon, but I find that that cheapens the phenomenon and denies the reality of the experience. It moves it to some unreachable Platonic ideal otherworld, out of the realm of humanity. It makes it fictional rather than real.

          It can be an effective rhetorical device to describe something as unbelievable or seemingly unreal or even otherworldly…but to declare it to actually so is to call it a lie.

          b&

          • gunnerkee19
            Posted June 2, 2015 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

            Thanks, Ben.

            I suppose I’m still hanging onto the idea of ‘spirit’ more than I realized. In my mind I was equating spiritual with a feeling rarely experienced, one that can come from that rare moment when engulfed in wonderful music. But, taking your point, it’s not really spiritual because, as you say, spirits aren’t real.

  8. Jim Sweeney
    Posted June 1, 2015 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    Nice deconversion story in the National Geographic interview. I’m gratified to learn that I discovered my unbelief before Professor Ceiling Cat, and perhaps at an earlier age. Then again, my parents were agnostic and may have been worrying why I was so slow to catch on.

  9. merilee
    Posted June 1, 2015 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    great about Nat Geo!

  10. Wayne Tyson
    Posted June 2, 2015 at 1:30 am | Permalink

    The trouble with words is that they are just words. The trouble with language is that it is just language. Phenomena are just phenomena, quite beyond words and language. Math can come closer, but still “no cigar.”

    All are exercises in egocentrism, the basis for constructions built from them, including the fantasy that “we” are superior beings.

    Because of this, we may all be quite the opposite of our arrogant claims.

    Some of us have struggled mightily to translate phenomena into words, to try to invent a kind of metalanguage, and some of us come close. But in the final analysis we know that we shall never “succeed.” But when we relax fully, sometimes we experience–to be, not not to be.

    Here are a couple of examples:

    “In the heart of the city I have heard the wild geese crying on the pathways that lie over a vanished forest. Nature has not changed the force that drives them. Man, too, is a different expression of that natural force. He has fought his way from the sea’s depths to Palomar Mountain. He has mastered the plague. Now, in some final Armageddon, he confronts himself.” –Loren Eiseley, The Invisible Pyramid.

    “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” Beston, Henry. “The Outermost House,” 1926.

  11. Posted June 2, 2015 at 3:42 am | Permalink

    My answer would have been ‘No’ – but then no one is interviewing me! 😉


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