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The Modern Atheist And End Of Religious language

A former member
Post #: 12
I have the Adams quote as as bumper sticker on my Saturn.

Perhaps someday we will have a better vocabulary for certain kinds of experiences that now get confused with religious concepts, but for now, I'm sticking with "transcendent." Another definition--and the one I had in mind--is "Lying beyond the ordinary range of perception." That is precisely what I meant by my use of the term, because my sensations and thoughts are sometimes heightened beyond the quotidian. I will not apologize for it in the least, and find your comparison of the rapture a person might feel listening to music or making love or viewing an amazing scene with schizophrenia dehumanizing and insulting. I do not accept that basing our worldview on science and rational thought means we must denigrate human experiences and impulses that do not fit into neat materialistic categories. Yes, all those experiences are in one sense reducible to matter and motion. But the patterns formed are not mere matter and motion--they are qualia, they are experiences. Some of those experiences go well beyond normal perception, and include feelings and insights that are unusual. That makes them "transcendent," because they "go beyond." Not beyond to some fairy land or castle in the air or secret theological dimension--simply beyond the norm of our experience. Why should that be worthy of criticism?

And I strive to be tolerant of religious PEOPLE in the same way I am tolerant of all people, assuming that we are all more or less mistaken in a great deal of what we think and that we are in any case a mystery to ourselves and others. What I am not tolerant of is religion, and most especially religious bigotry and religious coersion. There was a saying back when I was a Christian, "Hate the sin but love the sinner." I think we can turn that on its head a little and think, "Hate the superstition but love (or at least act respectfully and kindly toward) the superstitious." Do we really want to become anything like they are? To view them in any way similar to how they view us? We have the luxury of doing much, much better, for two simple but powerful reasons: we are not afraid of so many of the things they are; and we are not hampered by being profoundly mistaken about the nature of reality.
A former member
Post #: 33
Still not sure what you mean by transcendent could be a flash back of some sort. Maybe you should read How The mind Works By Steven Pinker that might perhaps explain your thinking. Or perhaps your upbringing in religion has left you with some sort of feelings that are explainable. I see the world as it naturally evolved through 4.6 billion years from simplicity through complexity of complex organisms,that gives me enough reason to know that life is precious and religion is just a cop out.
A former member
Post #: 13
I've read everything Pinker has written, and I think Dennett, Harris (who has also taken heat for precisely the same issue) and especially Owen Flannigan--atheists all--are relevant to the point. I don't have an upbringing in religion, by the way. My family was nominally Christian in the sense that we were not Hindu, but we never went to church and I'm sure my parents always considered themselves agnostic at most. I converted to Christianity at around 18. Your last sentence just doesn't make any sense in the context of our discussion. I of course recognize that the cosmos are "naturally evolved," I admit no supernatural agency of any kind, and I am making no religious claims. I happen to think--and with some pretty good reason--that the emergent properties of mind, including a capacity for experiences beyond what we normally experience--are entirely natural. I'm not sure what we might even be arguing about at this point. It appears you did not like a word I used because for you it has some religious associations. I would welcome a recommendation for a better word, but I don't think comparing moments of pure enjoyment and transporting joy as "flashback" or comparing such moments to schizophrenia, as your friend did, is entirely helpful. You are coolly rational, and that's an admirable trait. Would that humanity had more coolly rational minds to guide it. But can it really be that the promotion of atheism means an end to any sense of "irrational" joy, wonder, well-being, connectedness, timelessness? In other words, if one found oneself caught in a moment of rapture--not a flashback or an aneurysm, but a genuine "natural high" rapture from, say, seeing one's child take her first steps--should one then catch oneself and in a scolding tone remind oneself that this is just chemicals and electricity and calm the hell down, "you're not making any sense"? Dawkins expresses profound wonder at the natural world and says he understands something of the "religious feeling" that Einstein expressed, related completely to the natural world. No fairies in the garden needed. He comments that "unweaving the rainbow--understanding what rainbows are and how they appear--far from taking away from their beauty and awesomeness, contributes yet more to his appreciation of them. Perhaps that is all you are saying and I'm missing it somehow. Perhaps you just wish I'd say clearly that there are no ghosts in the machine, that whatever we feel, whether exaltation or depression, is nothing more or less than matter and motion. And I will agree with you one hundred percent that there is nothing but the physical universe with its material properties. But I maintain that there is something more, emergent properties that form patterns that we can experience as extraordinary. There is nothing magical about them. They require no external agency, much less any kind of "intelligent design." They arise through nothing other than natural processes. But they are extraordinary. Do we really want non-atheists to perceive atheism as a worldview barren of all enchantment, a sterile and detached philosophy that makes no room for soaring heights of human emotion, or altered states of perception, or deeply poetic expressions of love and amazement? I will say again, in other words: The big-ass wrecking ball of rationality is no doubt necessary to crack and crumble the foundations of superstition and irrational belief. I am grateful for all those who wield its force. But the people in those edifices of ignorance need to know, if we wish or expect them to join us in the light, that they are moving to a place that still values love and joy, that provides a space for compassion and morality, and that can assure them of a life filled with meaning. Fortunately, an atheistic view can offer all of that and more, and I would argue that it can do so much more completely and convincingly than religion ever did. Let us be friends in this time of great transition. Atheism in its current form is still relatively new. Let's struggle together to create a new vocabulary that is free of Dark Ages nonsense, yet connects to that human part of us that is, for lack of a better vocabulary right now, "metaphysical." We never have to deny a single physical fact to acknowledge that there are things that take us beyond the merely physical, when it comes the way we experience certain ideation and mental states.
A former member
Post #: 3
...I wanted to touch on is the word "transcendent." A common definition is "existing apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe."


One can look at this definition and make an argument that nothing is transcendent, since all that we observe or experience can be clinically broken down to chemical reactions and atomic interactions.

... Yes, we all have wonderful experiences that make us feel joyous, fulfilled, and more, ...to paraphrase, isn't it enough to enjoy the beauty of a garden without insisting there are fairies living in it?...


So, what is beauty, joy, fulfillment? Are they not just feelings? And a feeling is just a sequence of reactions brought about by neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and others. Still, what is beauty to one may be seen by another as something altogether differently. By that very definition, then, the perception of beauty cannot be consistently reproduced with the same results across the population - it exists apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe. Therefore, perceptions of beauty, love and joy are transcendent by definition.

Beyond semantics, depression and other mental afflictions are clearly attributable to measurable chemical imbalances in the brain and not transcendent.
Jack C.
user 3043821
Group Organizer
Minneapolis, MN
Post #: 13
First, for Greg:

Whoa. Before taking offense ("insulting and dehumanizing"), take a breath and consider that there are no sacred cows on an atheist forum. And really, isn't your reply insulting to people who have schizophrenia, since you're implying that your feelings are somehow more profound or meaningful than theirs? If the definition of transcendent is "lying beyond the range of ordinary perception," then the voices and visions experienced by a person with schizophrenia qualify. They're much more out of the ordinary than even the most profound feelings of love, for instance, because most people report that they experience those in their lifetimes. As a parent, I know I would unhesitatingly give my life to save my daughter's, and you can't tell me there's a greater love than that. More on schizophrenia below, in my reply to Gregg, but you'll have to add to your definition if you want to exclude perceptions that are often (but not always) described as negative. And I don't agree that explaining joyous and loving feelings, or supporting the position that they can be explained in a material way, denigrates them at all. There's a good evolutionary reason for parental love, but knowing that doesn't make it any less profound to the person who experiences it.

Perhaps more than anything, this thread shows how imperfect communication by message boards can be. I invite both Greg and Gregg to come to a Minnesota Atheists event where we can all talk face to face. It would be more enlightening, more productive, and more fun.

If we agree that what you refer to as transcendent states are entirely subject to the state of our material brains, and in theory are reproducible, then the problem seems to be that you assume I don't celebrate the noble human emotions sufficiently. As a person who loves music, the visual arts, and relishes the joy I receive from my family and friends, I assure you I do. These things inspire creativity, which is itself one of the most fulfilling experiences a person can have. But just like Dan Dennett tried to explain to Bill Moyers when asked if he saw the hand of something transcendent in great music and architecture inspired by religious themes, I can be just as moved while knowing that the feeling comes from the techniques employed by the human artists and the way they connect to my perceptions and memories.

<<Still, what is beauty to one may be seen by another as something altogether differently. By that very definition, then, the perception of beauty cannot be consistently reproduced with the same results across the population - it exists apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe. Therefore, perceptions of beauty, love and joy are transcendent by definition.>>

At the hazard of arguing semantics, I think that all this demonstrates is that perceptions are always somewhat subjective. It isn't at all clear how the subjectivity of human perceptions could make them free of the limitations of the natural universe. The task is impossible in practicality, but as a thought experiment, who's to say that perceptions of beauty could not be reproduced to the point of being indistinguishable by the subject's descriptions (what other measure would you accept?) if all the same neurons could be made to fire in the same way? After all, neuroscientists have found that phenomena such as out-of-body experiences can now be provoked by a specific electrical stimulation to the brain, and religious experiences can be triggered (in believers) by the ingestion of the drug psilocybin (this from the Johns Hopkins study). In William James' book The Varieties of Religious Experience (which Dennett regards highly), the author found nitrous oxide to be useful in this regard, although he didn't feel its use made his experiences any less genuine.

Also, there is no clear distinction between the feelings that are deemed transcendent and those we attribute to chemical imbalances. Van Gogh clearly suffered from mental illness, but does that make his art less worthwhile or deeply felt? Is it likely that he would have produced the same insightful work if he were "normal" (whatever that means)?

Not surprisingly, the transcendent experience is often used to assert the existence of god when all other arguments fail. "I feel it, as profoundly as I've ever felt anything, and that's all the proof I need." If you create a special category for feelings or perceptions that "go beyond," you're getting dangerously close to endorsing beliefs that are not evidence-based. I know, you don't ascribe anything supernatural, but what does it mean to "go beyond?" Unusual, beyond the norm? Fine. Not unique, and not unexplainable in material terms. So we agree, right?

Maybe apropos of nothing, I'm reminded of the following line: "Always remember that you are a unique individual. Just like everybody else."

One last thing and I'll let this go. There's an old short story by the science fiction author Robert Sheckley titled "Love, Inc." I think you both (Greg and Gregg) would get a kick out of it.
A former member
Post #: 4
Jack,

Well said. You are right. This medium does not lend itself to the sublties of facial expressions and tones that are not confrontational, but simply thoughts for discussion.

I hope to see you (and Greg) at a Meetup smile
A former member
Post #: 15
Dudes...we're all on the same side, you know. I don't have time to respond right now, unfortunately, except to say that what I am utterly failing to communicate, I think, is the meaning of "qualia." And I didn't feel insulted or offended, by the way. That's just rhetorical bluster because I think it's fun. I will say that if I were liable to feel insulted, Carl's use of "flashback" would probably qualify as offensive, but I'm really not all that invested in this debate to get emotional about it. The suggestion that I should be careful saying what I think to be true (on the basis of good evidence) because it might give aid and comfort to the enemy is rather peculiar. Theists use all kinds of arguments that claim are evidence for their god--complexity, for example. I won't go around pretending that cells are simple just because to admit that they are complex might bolster an intelligent design argument. There is no reason that acknowledging that rare states of mind (I contrasted them to quotidian states of mind) exist should in any way promote theism. But as you say, this is a conversation best had in person, and I look forward to that time. I sense that so much of what's going on here is just a question of refining our definitions, that we are talking past each other precisely because--as Carl started this thread--religious language is so pervasive and we have not yet developed a secular, scientific vocabulary to refer to concepts that have traditionally been in the religious domain. It's as if we go around believing that "malaria" really is caused by "bad air," or that the "quintessence" of something really consists of an invisible fifth essence beyond earth, wind, water, and fire. Clearly that is not what we are saying. I think this conversation is crucial in a way. We have no motive to pander to religionists, but neither must we unnecessarily put off persons on the fence, who might join the atheist cause if the issues were framed properly. This conversation is an exercise in framing, and I look forward to our continuing to work out the solutions to the implied ambiguity. I apologize for being a little disjointed right now; I don't have time to draft anything more cohesive. Bottom line: I look forward to carrying on this productive conversation in person, sometime soon.
Jack C.
user 3043821
Group Organizer
Minneapolis, MN
Post #: 14
Thanks for the thoughtful replies. Just one point of clarification:

<<The suggestion that I should be careful saying what I think to be true (on the basis of good evidence) because it might give aid and comfort to the enemy is rather peculiar.>>

I wasn't suggesting that you should censor your speech, and I have no problem admitting that certain states of mind are much less common than others; what I find troubling is the suggestion (which perhaps you were not making) that these states of mind are proof of anything beyond an amazingly complex brain. To provide context, this comes on the heels of reading (okay, skimming, since the book is often redundant) THE SPIRITUAL BRAIN. This book, by a rather unaccomplished neuroscientist, claims "proof" of god by citing his study of Carmelite nuns in which fMRIs were taken while they were remembering religious experiences. The author claims that the results are highly unusual, maybe even unique (quite a stretch), and goes on to say that this shows a specific and direct connection to god. This guy has been all over the religious media, and it bugs me when the trappings of science are misused this way.

On the other hand, I think that atheists do society a disservice by trying to reassure religious people that they won't have to give up all of life's "mysteries" (I'll explain the quotations) when they abandon belief in the supernatural. The kind of "mystery" I'm talking about is one that is beyond both explanation and the realm of the natural universe. There is no shortage of awe or mind-boggling truths (over 400 billion galaxies in the known universe, 100 billion stars in each, for instance) in the universe, and there's no reason to go beyond known science for profound wonder (I always find it surprising how very few people seem to consider the incredible marvels of the material world). So nobody's saying we have to give up that. Personally, though, I think that efforts tinged with the reassurance that humans are special give the wrong message. When we give up worship of deities, we shouldn't replace it with worship of humankind. Not, to be clear, that I think that's what you were trying to promote. We agree that we are evolved primates, that these big brains are what set us apart, though not by nearly as much as religious folks think. My personal feeling is that we need more humility among homo sapiens and less self-congratulation. All we've got is each other on this tiny speck moving through an unimaginably vast ocean of space.

Here's a friendlier way of saying it, quoting Joe Franklin (who I think was quoting Eddie Cantor): "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice."

Hope to see you both at the PrideFest (I'll be at the MNA booth from 10 to noon on Sunday the 29th), at the spaghetti dinner later that evening, or maybe the July picnic.
A former member
Post #: 16
Fair enough...I like what you said and do not have reason to think we're in any kind of substantial disagreement. I can assure you that everything I think about perception and experience is strictly physicalist--I think it all arises out of our "amazingly complex brain," and our brains' interactions with the material world. I do think that some mental states that emerge from this complexity in some sense defy reductionism, but in no sense do I think they are supernatural or extranatural in origin. But it's at most a nuanced distinction, and possibly a distinction without a difference.

I will stump for human exceptionalism, however. As far as we know, we are the only lifeform capable of the sort of dialog and reflection we're sharing here, and that does make us special. That's as much a cause for humility as for pride, and I am in no way advocating for the deification of humanity--we are as much devils and beasts as we are gods. But neither would I wish for us to overlook our unique (as far as we know) status within the cosmos.

I'll end by saying that I find the godless universe far more mysterious and awesome than I did the Christian universe. Christian cosmology, no matter how much lipstick contemporary apologists try to apply to it, sooner or later reduces to a flat table with a tin bowl over it, the inside of which God has painted with little stars, and this god looks in at his pets and elects the vast majority of them for eternal punishment and elects an elite few to feed his outsized, ravenous ego. This is reality writ small, a tiny, crabbed, cramped view of reality that chokes and suffocates any legitimate sense of awe or wonder. We are the ones with the vast horizons, the deep wells, the open skies. Reality is more expansive and encompassing and satisfying than mythology could ever strive to be, because reality is not constrained by the limit of human imagination the way religion is.
A former member
Post #: 37

I will stump for human exceptionalism, however. As far as we know, we are the only lifeform capable of the sort of dialog and reflection we're sharing here, and that does make us special. That's as much a cause for humility as for pride, and I am in no way advocating for the deification of humanity--we are as much devils and beasts as we are gods. But neither would I wish for us to overlook our unique (as far as we know) status within the cosmos.

We are no more special than the tape worm after all they have survived 400 million years by jumping from one species into another including us. We still go through life pretending that we are exalted above other animals, but we know that we too are collections of cells that work together kept harmonized not by an angel but by chemical signals. If an organism can control those signals-an organism like a parasite-than it can control us. Parasites look at us coldly as food,or perhaps a vehicle. So to call us special or unique is an over site on our part.
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