What Atheists Believe Too

This is a guest post by Rae Williams.

Atheism is not really an assertion of anything. Contrary to what its name might imply, it is not a confident proclamation that there is no God, no gods, and nothing supernatural. It is a refusal to accept any proposition without good evidence. It’s a refusal to take things on Faith. And one fact that atheists acknowledge which believers do not: there simply are no good reasons to posit the existence of any sort of God.

I’m not going to outline or defend the many reasons I don’t believe in any God or gods today. Depending on the interest of you, the Rogue Priest community, I may write some posts on this topic in the future. I would rather discuss what being an atheist forces one to commit to. First, I’m going to offer my own definitions of four sticky terms that are important to this debate.

Spirituality: the search for self-transcendence. It is losing yourself in the vastness of time and space, the raw beauty of nature, and communion with your fellow humans. Related emotions include things like rapture, awe, and love.

Mysticism: the first-person exploration of consciousness. Meditation and introspection are two well-known ways of going about this, with drug use, ecstatic dancing, various rituals, and fasting also falling into this category.

Religion: the community, ritual, tradition, and mythology that builds up around a mystic, or contemplative. Someone like Buddha or Jesus had a profound shift in consciousness doing something like meditating or praying, and through the ages a religion sprung up around their teachings.

Faith: is believing things for which you do not have enough evidence.

These definitions are far from perfect. I am aware that for most people, most of the time, “religion” actually refers to churches, traditions, and belief in the supernatural. Even I lapse into this usage in my debates with believers. But if you grant me these definitions, the most important question for an atheist is now:

Can I find things associated with the world’s religious traditions that are useful but do not require me to believe things without evidence?

The answer is almost certainly yes. Let’s consider each term for its compatibility with atheism.

Atheists are often accused of (and sometimes guilty of) denying the possibilities of spiritual experiences. Part of this likely stems from the fact that the word “spiritual” implies “nonmaterial.” But there is nothing within my definition that forces one to embrace the supernatural in search of spirituality, and there is nothing within atheism that forces one to deny spirituality. Notice that I speak of “time and space” and reverence for the “raw beauty of nature” when I talk about spirituality; nothing supernatural there. Atheists can be open to seeking the most profound of spiritual experiences. Surely even hardened atheists have stared in wonder at the stars in the night sky.

What an atheist cannot do is use those experiences, often attained in the context of some sort of religion, as an endorsement of religious doctrines. As a former born-again Christian, I can attest to the positive emotions that accompany church attendance. But facts about my subjective experiences are not a valid basis for asserting the truth of Christianity.

Humans have had religion for about as long as we have been humans. That’s a lot of field testing, and strong evidence that there is something about ritual that is attractive to the human mind. I find it likely that aeons of organizing our lives around natural cycles and rhythms has played a strong part in shaping the beings that we are today. Ritually tracking things like tides and harvest season would have been matters of life and death to our ancestors, who were embedded in nature every day of their lives. We have erected technological buffers which separate us from the lives that our ancestors knew. This isn’t exclusively a bad thing; I very much like having enough to eat, having internet access, books, ipods, and hot showers. But in periodically tuning our lives to a great, cosmic heartbeat, we are tapping into a timeless heritage that is inextricably bound up in our humanity.

It isn’t hard for me, an atheist, to imagine that celebrating the summer solstice by camping out in the woods might be restful and beneficial from a subjective point of view. Other kinds of rituals, divorced from dogma, could also be useful in achieving desirable states of mind. Here is an open question to my readers: do you think the benefits of ritual are content-independent? In other words, do you think that I would get similar benefits from engaging in Hindu rituals vs. Gaelic rituals vs. Christian rituals (again, not assuming that any of the gods of these religions actually exist)? If not, then why do different rituals yield different results? Would I lose something if I mixed and matched between them, or practiced them all in parallel?

Meditating, like other mystical practices, requires no element of faith. You simply sit and observe the workings of your mind. Hopefully, as you gain a better understanding of this process, you can actively cultivate more positive emotions like compassion. There is debate about whether or not such a practice is useful in studying consciousness, given the fallibility of first-person reports. While we humans can certainly be wrong about our subjective experiences, I see no reason why it would be foolish to attempt such an exploration with the aid of things like introspection. Again, what would be unreasonable is taking insights into the mind to be insights about reality or worse, as proof of the truth of one religion.

The only thing you can’t have and still be an atheist is “Faith.” If you don’t have good evidence that some book was written by the creator of the universe, or that there is an afterlife or a soul, you can’t believe those things. Keep an open mind, and be on the lookout for new evidence, but don’t fervently believe something that you don’t know is true. That is no way to go about exploring the universe or finding meaning in life.

In conclusion, atheism requires you to have reasons for what you believe but does not require you to throw away everything that usually falls within the purview of religion. Atheists can be spiritual, mystics, or even religious, at least as I’ve defined these terms. Spirituality comes from appreciating the awesome mystery of the natural world and our interconnectedness with it; mysticism comes from having a more than casual interest in your own consciousness, and finding ways of exploring it; religion comes from embracing rituals, including things like “Walking Like a God” in order to cultivate spirituality and mysticism. None of these things requires making bad assumptions or taking anything on “Faith.” They resonate with the commitment to rationality and evidence which is the hallmark of both science and atheism.

Note from Drew: I will be a guest today on Radio Enso from 8 to 9 p.m. CST. I hope you can tune in tonight! Meanwhile, what are your thoughts on Rae’s view of religion and atheism? And what about his question—are the benefits of ritual content-independent? Let us know in the comments!


44 thoughts on “What Atheists Believe Too

  1. excindoignaviam says:

    Excellent essay! I am just now coming to terms with my “agnostic atheism.” This is very insightful and has positively informed my own process.

    • Rae says:

      Could you tell me a little bit more about your agnostic atheism? I’m not exactly sure what that means.

      • Trent —

        I do hope excin will correct me if I am mistaken, but as I have heard it explained to me, the scale of theism/atheism refers to belief in a god or gods, whereas the scale of gnostic/agnostic refers to a knowledge of gods (from the greek “gnosis”).

        I must admit that I do not fully understand these scales, as I don’t think in this instance anyone can be a gnostic anything, which would make the latter scale misleading.

        I call myself an agnostic atheist as well, but I do so with the knowledge that I could never be a gnostic atheist, because as you have so eloquently said, we should never stop looking for evidence. I call myself an agnostic atheist because it is important to be humble enough to know that you do not know.

        Your post was well written and I very much enjoyed reading it. I hope you continue to spread the word of rationality and reason =)

        • Rae says:

          Thanks Timothy. Your explanation made sense as soon as I read it, and yes, we should always be on the lookout for more evidence.

          But do you think it’s possible to gather enough data to move yourself away from the “agnostic” and toward the “gnostic” side of the scale? In other words, can absence of evidence actually become evidence of absence? Obviously, I can’t prove God doesn’t exist, and nobody else appears to be able to either. In this sense, then, I’m conceding my agnostic atheism. But there are an infinite number of propositions for which this also holds true. I can’t prove that the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist, or that there aren’t invisible unicorns on Mars. But it feels like a stretch to say I’m agnostic about the existence of these things.

          I see only two options in trying to answer this question. Either we grant that we can move toward gnosis by creating an incomplete case from fragmentary information, or we try to generate a criterion for judging why some concepts are obviously untrue (nobody really thinks there are unicorns on Mars, even if we can’t prove there nonexistence) while others are more resilient to this analysis. How is God different from the Easter Bunny?

          Thanks for your response.

  2. Su says:

    you are an atheistic priest of many gods?
    do you need the “atheist”, “priest”, or “gods”?
    you are.

    do i misread?

    love and thanks, su

    • Hi Su! Yep, a little misread on your part there – this was a guest post. The author is the atheist, and I (Drew) am the priest. :)

      Hope that clears it up!

      • Su says:

        ah!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! one *can* combine many labels, imagine my difficulty attempting to combine those :-)

        not the same labeller, but of course! not sure how i missed that. (maybe something in the writing seeming to suggest they might not as opposite as they seem?) interesting mistake.

        i enjoy your blog!

        more love and thanks, su :-)

        • Rae says:

          Glad my essay led to some interesting mistakes! Part of what I was trying to convey is that ‘priest’, ‘atheist’, and ‘mystic’ don’t have to be as mutually exclusive as they appear at first.

  3. So Trent, I’d like to offer a little counterpoint on this statement of yours:

    “There simply are no good reasons to posit the existence of any sort of God.”

    Millions of people experience the presence of gods. The atheist response is normally to dismiss this as hallucination or mental illness, but no correlation has been found between religiosity and mental illness. Likewise, the parts of the brain that are active during an experience of spiritual communion are different than those active during hallucination.

    When people can observe something, and there is no reason to believe it is a delusion, is that not a reasonable basis for belief?

    • Rae says:

      Ah, getting the Priest himself involved! I hope it’s clear from my having written this essay that I don’t dismiss subjective experience, or think that religious people are hallucinating (at least not in the derogatory sense of that word). That having been said, there are several levels to this question that must be addressed.

      Sophisticated religious people who attempt to justify their belief logically usually recognize that subjective experience of gods alone is not good enough. Hence you get lines of reasoning like “The Teleological Argument” or “The Cosmological Argument”, which are meant to bolster the case for belief.

      However, many people do affirm their religious beliefs on the basis of how they feel when they worship some god or gods. A person attends a religious service or ceremony, feels a profound sense of calm or jubilance, and interprets this as evidence that the god in question has spoken to them. Invariably, these experiences are couched in religious language (“I was filled with the power of the Holy Ghost”; “I was one with Brahman”). But what are we to make of the fact that these subjective experiences are not just considered evidence of the existence of God, but evidence of the truth of specific religious doctrines? If a Christian affirms the divinity of Christ on the basis of how they feel when they go to church, and a muslim denies the divinity of Christ on the basis of how they feel when they go to a mosque, we are stuck with the task of evaluating which person’s experience counts as evidence for their religion’s claim to veracity. My answer is, “neither”.

      But I’ll take a step back and try to meet you on the broadest metaphysical grounds possible. How should we evaluate subjective experience, and what conclusions can we draw from these experiences? I’ve considered writing a whole post on this subject alone, because it’s too much to tackle in the comments section. But I think the safest bet is to try to scale your confidence in your beliefs in proportion to the evidence you have of them. I can see Aspen trees out my window. I know other people have seen them, I’ve touched the Aspens myself, I can see them bending in the wind, and I’ve studied tree biology before. Thus, I have multiple lines of evidence suggesting the existence of these Aspens. If I make the fair assumption that I’m not living inside the Matrix, I’m not being unreasonable to say that I know they are real.

      Asserting the existence of a tree is a pretty small claim in the grand scheme of things. And yet I have independently verifiable evidence to back this claim up. Consider how much more verifiable evidence would be required to back up the claim that there exists a spaceless, timeless, omniscient, omnipotent being that is responsible for the creation of all things and exceeds by great lengths our meager comprehension. I’m sorry, but “I know it’s true when I’m in Church/ at a Pagan festival/ meditating” just isn’t enough. Not for a claim that big.

      Ultimately, we have to rely on our subjective experience as a guide to the world to some degree or another. But that experience is a less than perfect guide. This will be obvious to anyone who has ever stared intently at an optical illusion and tried to unsee it. Evolution has given us a powerful, albeit flawed, sensory system. Likewise, there is a pretty compelling case to be made that we are hardwired to believe in god. So contrary to your claim, there is good reason to believe that religious experiences are a kind of delusion, without being committed to the idea that all religious people are crazy.

      What religious experience does tell us is that humans can access very powerful states of consciousness when they use their attention or intervene in their neurochemistry in certain ways. As I outlined in my essay, you can seek out these experiences without being committed to anything for which you don’t have evidence. I think it safe to go further and say that we should seek out these experiences without drawing unwarranted conclusions from them.

      • Trent, that is a considered answer and I’ll try to respond in kind.

        First, I am not introducing subjective experience as proof of any specific religious doctrine – only as evidence of the possible existence of spiritual beings. So to answer your question (what should we make of people using it as proof of religious doctrines?): nothing. Those people are off topic, overstepping what they have evidence for, and irrelevent to what I’m saying.

        Your second question, “how should we evaluate subjective experience?” is an excellent one. I would suggest a simple answer:

        In the realm of metaphysical inquiry, we should treat subjective experience exactly the same as we do in any other field.

        In general, subjective experience is treated as weaker evidence than scientific observation, but not totally un-credible. It is usually considered credible under the following circumstances:

        (a) Many people report the same or similar experience, AND
        (b) There is no scientific reason to believe the people are mistaken.

        In other words, subjective experience is always trumped by science, but in the absence of conflicting scientific data it is considered evidence.

        For example, if one swimmer in the Mississippi River (which doesn’t normally have sharks) reported seeing a shark, the report would be dismissed. If many people claimed to have spotted a shark, river beaches would probably be closed – unless there was some compelling reason to believe the reports were mistaken (such as evidence of a hoax).

        In the case of the existence of gods, nonbelievers have made considerable effort to find a compelling case for fraud or delusion, and been broadly unsuccessful. Millions of people report startlingly consistent experiences, which differ primarily only in cultural dressing.

        Thus, I submit that personal experience serves as evidence for the existence of gods – weaker evidence than scientific observation, but at least strong enough to “close the beaches” (so to speak).

        In other words, saying there is no evidence is inaccurate.

        • Rae says:

          Good thoughts. We agree that subjective experience can’t validate specific religious doctrines. And yes, people often do report similar spiritual experiences. But I’m not quite convinced that there isn’t any scientific reason to believe that they are mistaken.

          I’ll expand my reference to the aforementioned illusions to make my point. If you asked the entirety of Earth’s population whether or not there was a blind spot in their field of vision (excluding blind people and the scientists who already know the answer), you’d almost certainly get an unequivocal chorus of ‘no’s. But we know that there is such a blind spot, and it’s existence is easily demonstrated. People aren’t aware of it because the brain pastes over it when constructing the field of vision from the saccadic movements of the eyes. I dare say that more people would agree on the lack of a blind spot than on the content of their religious experience. And yet, anyone who denies the existence of the blind spot is sorely mistaken about their own subjectivity.

          As I’ve mentioned before, there is reason to believe that we’re hardwired to believe in God. This stems from our tendency to see patterns where there aren’t any, to perceive agency when there isn’t any, and to “throw our minds” onto inanimate or semi-animate things. This cognitive architecture, crafted in the deep time of evolution, seems to be universal to all humans. As such, we should be extraordinarily skeptical of the veracity of subjective religious experience.

          You’re right, multiple contemporaneous reports of a shark in the Mississippi river would be stronger evidence than a single report. But what if we knew that, for whatever the hell reason, evolution had given us a predilection for seeing sharks in the Mississippi? We’d be really careful before closing any beaches. It seems to me like we should be even more careful when we have good evidence that people can be mistaken about their subjective experience, are almost certainly predisposed to having certain sorts of religious experiences, and are using those experiences to make the most astonishing claims imaginable.

          The neurobiology of belief, the evolution of religion, and neurotheology are all fascinating fields of inquiry. I’m by no means an expert, so if anyone has more information, please feel free to let me know.

          Also, Drew, I think I detect the slightest of inconsistencies. In an exchange in the comments section of your “Joseph Campbell” post, you explicitly denied the idea that people’s religious experiences are basically the same. You pointed me to the work of someone named Mario Beauregard, who detected differences in nuns and Buddhist meditators as they went about their religious practice. So, do you think that people have “startlingly consistent experiences, which differ primarily only in cultural dressing”, or that “Different brain areas are activated and a different mental state is achieved. Different religions seek radically different things, even though the language and symbols they use are sometimes similar”?

          • Nope, no inconsistencies here. Let me take you point by point.

            About the example of a blind spot in human vision, I don’t see the relevance, since you’re re-stating what we already agree on: science trumps subjective experience. Totally agree and thanks for finding an example to support why that’s important.

            Second, you introduce some possible scientific reasons why we should dismiss the subjective experience of communing with divine beings. I consider the evidence you introduced to be particularly weak. You offered two suggestions:

            a) Humans tend to find patterns where there are none. That’s fine, but doesn’t really address the issue of feeling a sense of communion with diving beings. You are correct that humans have been proven to see patterns where there are none. That is important information that is relevant to discussions of psychic powers, premonitions, or fate, because those types of human beliefs are based on seeing patterns. On the other hand, communion with a divine being has nothing to do with seeing patterns where there are none. It is a subjective experience of feeling a presence or personality. The pattern thing seems irrelevant.

            b) Humans tend to paint consciousness on things that aren’t conscious. From a materialist perspective, this would seem to be a much stronger argument than (a). However, it is based on the huge assumption that the things around us aren’t conscious. It’s circular reasoning. I’m asking you to present evidence for why the gods (i.e. the consciousness in nature) doesn’t exist, and you’re saying, “Humans treat the land as conscious even though it isn’t.” You’re begging the question.

            All in all I have yet to see strong scientific evidence that the subjective experience of divine communion is delusional. You say we’re hard-wired to believe in gods, but if that were true I’d expect a much smaller variation in rates of atheism. We would expect people to be theists at a fairly constant rate it if were genetic. But they aren’t – there is a 4% atheism rate in the US compared to more than 80% in Sweden ( Atheism rates also change rapidly in response to cultural and political factors. There has been serious discussion in the last 15 years of a possible “god gene” that causes people to believe in god and the idea has been thoroughly debunked with no good evidence behind it. If we are hard-wired to believe in gods, the evidence has yet to be found.

            Last, you pointed out my previous comment that people’s religious experiences are not basically the same. That is correct. The example I gave previously was the difference in brain activity that occurs during Buddhist meditation versus that which occurs during Christian ecstatic communion practices. However, Buddhist meditation is nontheistic. The question before us right now is whether people’s subjective experiences of communing with deities are substantially similar other than cultural dressings. As far as I can tell, they are. People who have an experience of communion with Hermes have substantially the same experience as those who commune with Jesus.

  4. Trent, you’re right on the money of what I believe too. Have you checked out DT Strain’s The Humanist Contemplative? Further, there’s a burgeoning community of agnostics, atheists, and naturalists who also engage in meditation, ritual, etc. – all but the kind of faith you mention – over on the Humanistic Paganism site. It sounds like you might fit in well there (and I’ve thoroughly shared and tweeted your article to get those readers interested in what you have to say!)

    The only quibble I have is the way you define atheism. I do see your point, and you are certainly free to define/redefine your atheism, but it seems a departure from that of most atheists I know. Most of them really do mean to say “there is no god.” Mirriam-Webster dictionary and Wikipedia concur.

    What you seem to describe I would label as a form of skepticism, Pyrrhonian Skepticism to be precise – of which I am a huge fan. Would that be an unfair label?

    • Rae says:


      Thank you for your reply, your sharing of my article, and the websites to which you referred. I’ll be checking them out. I hope, at some point in the future, to become involved in some sort of humanistic pagan spirituality.

      I knew I’d eventually get in trouble for playing around with the definitions of these terms! The original essay had a lot of caveats to the effect of “I’m sorry if how I defined ‘X’ confuses things, but…”, which did not survive the edits. “Pyrrhonian Skeptic” is a label that fits me quite nicely. I would argue, however, that refusing to believe things without good evidence logically precludes Faith in god. I didn’t really have space to defend this claim, and it can of course be disputed.

      Thanks again for your insightful comments.

  5. Arden says:

    Ahh, but you definitely are asserting something: the reliability of the senses, the reliability of external verification, the reliability of rationality, and, I would venture to say, the reliability of the scientific method. From a philosophical angle, all of these are fair game for critique — and have been for two hundred years, since the Age of Reason began to be examined by 19th-century thinkers. :)

    Atheism as we typically see it has as much of a cultural foundation as any religion, and is really its own specific paradigm.

    Don’t get me wrong here. Your position as an atheist is certainly philosophically respectable and I think your restraint is admirable. Also, saying that reason isn’t necessarily the best form of epistemology, or even that it’s unreliable, isn’t to say that we shouldn’t use it or that all “subjective” experiences are as valid as those that are “independently verified.”

    I just want to point out that all of this is very far from self-apparent.

    • Rae says:

      Good point Arden. I want to take a moment to address the comments in your first paragraph because they cut pretty deeply into metaphysics. Please don’t take them as aimed at you personally, I get the sense you’re being something of a Devil’s Advocate :)

      The truth is, all philosophical systems are bootstrapped from foundational principles which themselves are not justified. Point taken. But no one should feel guilty about taking the necessary step of relying on some unproven statements. I just take it as a given that evidence, rational coherence, and explanatory power are good things. What evidence do I have of this, how can I justify it rationally? Well, I can’t really, not in any noncircular way. But once we’ve taken a few values like this as our bedrock, it becomes obvious that science is the most illuminating system we’ve invented so far. This doesn’t mean that there is nothing of value in the world’s religious traditions; indeed, the very point of the essay was that there are practices worth salvaging and learning from. I just want to be careful about what we conclude about the universe from these practices.

      Having made explicit the paradigm under which I’m working, then, I reiterate my definition: atheism is a refusal to accept anything without good evidence. You’re right, even within this phrasing lurks an assertion, albeit a tacit one. It basically amounts to an endorsement of the paradigm it’s a part of, but that’s true of nearly any statement. I lacked the space to appropriately state this, to say nothing of how exhausting it would have gotten. Being too careful in how you word things, I’ve found, can prove just as muddying as being too feckless.

      There isn’t anything stopping a person from rejecting these values. But then, nothing obliges us to take those people seriously. Evidence can’t justify evidence, but if a person rejects that evidence is a plus when making a case, they’ve effectively dismissed themselves from the conversation.

      I’d be interested to know what your beliefs are. If you don’t think reason is the best form of epistemology, then what is? I also hope you might unpack your claim that atheism is its own paradigm with as much of a cultural foundation as any religion. I’m not at all sure that is the case, but I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying.

      Many thanks.

      • You caught me; I am in fact the Devil’s Advocate sort. ;) And, excellent – you’re well-acquainted with what’s at stake here, it seems. I don’t mean to derail your discussion by deconstructing it meaninglessly; it has its own internal consistency and there’s a hard limit to the usefulness of philosophy 101 questions. (“So, like, what IS reason, anyway?” _is_ a good question, of course, but not necessarily for this discussion.)

        I think I can reframe what I was trying to say and make it more pointed and relevant. The issue at hand here is not that you look for “good evidence”; it’s what you mean by “good evidence,” because what you mean is (if I’m interpreting you correctly) based on a quite specific conception of what qualifies as evidence. Other people, with less of a commitment than you to epistemology, the scientific method, and what counts as “proven” or “verified,” may accept other kinds of evidence– even if they place the same priority upon reason as you do. Another _atheist_ could differ with you in this respect easily enough. So behind my rambling, I’m really quibbling with your definition. :) I think most people these days consider the evidence they have for their beliefs good, even most religious people. (I actually think that a lot of religious types don’t tend to embrace faith as a concept; or at least they mean it in the sense that you do here, “I’m just taking these assumptions as a given.”)

        Again, this is not to say your belief system isn’t coherent or defensible. It certainly is, and it’s a charitable and well-written besides. (It’s awesome to see an atheist critically examine what ritual actually does for people, and acknowledge its worth and potential. I feel that this kind of discussion about spirituality is much more useful and constructive than the typical discussions you see.)

        Since you asked, my own beliefs are very complicated, but religiously speaking I’m a pragmatist, and to use some jargon, I’m what Richard Rorty described as a “Romantic Polytheist.” I do believe epistemology is remarkably useful as a method and that science is a marvelous apparatus, but I tend to take exception to the idea that science is the best humanity has to offer or even the best way of determining what is true in all cases. I tend to believe that people isolate reason without, well, reason to do so– I believe it’s indivisible from perception, acculturation, and emotion most of the time (which isn’t to say critical thinking is impossible or that superstition isn’t a phenomena or anything of the sort; just that what people refer to as reason is more often than not a very complex cognitive process). In this, I take cues from the irrationality of Nietzsche and other thinkers, and the criticisms of empiricism and logical positivism which have taken place since mid-20th century.

        I’ll see if I can talk about atheism’s cultural paradigm sometime soon, if you’re up for it. That’s a bit tricky to explain (and doesn’t have to do with your post per se). Thanks for the discussion! This is all very interesting .

        • Rae says:

          Yes, being at least acquainted with broad swaths of philosophy, I’m aware of what is at stake. And I concur, there is only so much use to asking questions like ‘what is reality’ or ‘what does it mean to mean something’? These sorts of questions have their place (indeed, I have a blog post on my website concerning the questions of reality. Click through my name and check it out), but it’s easy to start chasing yourself in linguistic circles.

          Interestingly, I agree that Faith may not be as important to believers as it first appears. At least, it’s not that important until you start pushing. But I imagine that many religious people do in fact think that they have good reasons for believing what they believe. Needless to say, I think they’re mistaken on this point. Somewhere in the exchange Drew and I were having I outlined my stance on subjective experience and it’s role as evidence. I just don’t think you can posit the existence of something like a God or gods on the basis of how you feel when you worship them. Notice though, I disagree with some atheists in thinking that subjective experiences of the religious sort are evidence of something. Not the existence of God(s), but rather that certain valuable states of consciousness can be attained by engaging in rituals or directing your attention in certain ways. I have a strong secular interest in these matters, and want to put them on as logical a footing as I can.

          You’re right, Reason and science are far from perfect. Both are embedded in and shaped by the cultural milieu of the person practicing them. I maintain, though, that they are the best chances we have of discovering truth, flawed though they may be. Can you give me an example of a truth that you think science would be of limited use in pursuing? What method would be better suited to pursuing that truth? I want to try and get my head around your insightful objections.

        • You’ve made a number of very interesting points here; I’ll let you and Drew have at the topic of subjective evidence and watch it with interest, since I confess I don’t know as much about fields like neurotheology. I didn’t necessarily mean subjective evidence when I spoke about evidence, though; I think an atheist who happened to be a rationalist (in a philosophical sense) may not agree with your assessment of evidence. :)

          I found a quote by Erwin Shrodinger that encapsulates what I would say about the limitations of science (and reason, to a lesser extent): “I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.”

          Science is limited when it comes to our raw experience of being human. That is, how we interpret our experiences, what kind of experiences we value, how we go about creating and participating in our experiences… these are crucial topics which science can only shed insight on indirectly. Don’t mistake me: science is the unquestioned master of its domain and performs invaluable functions, some of which include interesting information about red, blue, bitter, sweet, etc. But those statements are descriptive and only tangentially insightful. Take ethics, for instance. A study on primate psychology can shed insight on the way we act, and reason make relevant connections and point out inconsistencies based on that study, but any discussion of ethics will eventually come down to the question of what is meaningful for us, which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with facts about primate psychology at all.

          I don’t mean to diminish scientific or logical input. A secular stance on those states of consciousness you mentioned can reveal some incredibly illuminating things, and I’m fascinated by, for instance, theories of beauty and emotion that examine art and the cognitive psychology behind our appreciation of it. But when it comes to _creating_ good, deep art, and by analogy living a good, deep life, they are quite optional.

          I guess my point is that a single methodology, like the scientific method or logic, cannot encapsulate the vastness of human experience. These methods are designed to unroot one specific kind of truth; stories, for instance, present us with another, and one that is often more immediate and useful. And that’s fine, because we have both!

          You say “you’re right, Reason and Science are far from perfect.” Where are you getting this notion of perfection, if I may ask? What would a perfect Science and Reason look like? Something completely clinical and unbiased? If so, what good would that do to anybody? That would mean Science and Reason were completely abstracted from the world around us, and would probably mean they would become completely irrelevant. Are emotions, bias, and perceptions – all indications that we’re actively engaged in the world – somehow less than “perfect”? I honestly think science and reason are fine the way they are; we just need to have realistic expectations of what they can accomplish on their own, and see them within the broader context of our beliefs and endeavors.

          Again, thanks for the great discussion. :)

  6. Thank you for this essay. It is always interesting to see people, especially nonspecialists, trying to figure out what they mean when talking about religion and related concepts. It highlights how they come to apply particular labels to themselves and then use those labels to define acceptable avenues of thought, and how they label others and so attempt to predict the behavior of those others.

    However, I am afraid that I was unable to finish reading your essay due to the extreme divergence of your definition of “religion” from any that I could recognize, as it would exclude such obvious religions as Shinto and Santería. Since those religions happen to be among the religions that are most important to my own thinking on the subject, everything else you have to say seems increasingly nonsensical to the matter as I understand it. It is difficult to read essays that appear nonsensical.

    I could, perhaps, avoid the matter by assuming that the only religions about which you choose to think are the very few that fit your odd definition (I can think of maybe a dozen or so offhand, depending on how one counts religions as being the “same” or “different”), but those religions are almost completely unimportant to me, excepting maybe Buddhism and Taoism. If I were to do so, then, there would be nothing you’ve written that would be of interest to me. I am supposing that you are attempting to reach an audience, however, that would include a polytheist like myself, since I am a regular reader of this blog and, though we do not agree on everything, Drew and I both come out of the same intellectual tradition.

    You should look at the definitions of religion proposed by people who are specialists in the subject. Admittedly, they will require a lot more unpacking of the simplified concepts in most cases. For instance, my own preferred definition of religion is that of Clifford Geertz in his Interpretation of Cultures. It is (in the abbreviated form), “(1) a system of symbols (2) which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men (3) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” Each of those individual statements is unpacked over the next 30 pages or so of that book.

    I’d also be curious to know what your definition is of another word that you use frequently in your essay, “supernatural”. I confess that I don’t know what that word means, in the sense that I have nothing to which to relate the word.

    Another concept which you seem to discuss with enthusiasm is “belief”. Me, I don’t like belief, in most cases. It leads to statements about reality that exclude other people’s experience. Frequently, it leads to attempts to control other people by bringing their beliefs into line with one’s own set of beliefs, apparently in order to ensure that they act in a particular manner. It also prevents learning, by creating assumptions about reality that become definitive and therefore unquestioned. My only use for beliefs is embodied in a monologue in the movie Bull Durham. But this is all more of a statement in response to some in the early part of your essay than it is the main thrust of this comment, so I’ll leave it at that.

    I also take issue with the definition of “atheist” you use, since I tend to think that it leads to a potential for self-delusion, especially among those modern “atheists” who say that they have no interest in “religion” but can’t seem to talk about much of anything else, but since it is a label of self-definition (that is, beliefs that one has about oneself), I have less of a problem with accepting an alternate definition for the purposes of argument. (To be clear, the reason that the other definitions are more problematic to me is that they are attempts to define others.)

    • Rae says:

      I must confess that I’m a little surprised to have you inform me that there isn’t a scrap of ritual, myth, or tradition within either Shinto or Santeria. These are what my definition of religion was pointing to, after all.

      I suspect that the source of confusion is that I mentioned Buddha and Jesus as founders of two religions. The presence or absence of a founder is not at all material to the point I am trying to make. I was simply trying to clarify my emphasis on rituals and such as a means for achieving altered states of consciousness. “Religion” is usually a term used to refer to the whole shebang- the founders, the texts, the dogmas, the traditions, the myths, the holidays, and so on. Religions that don’t have founders, eschatologies, soteriologies, or otherwise don’t fit into the mold of what people generally think of as religion are still likely to have rituals and mythologies. To the extent that these rituals can be used as a vehicle for steering the contents of one’s consciousness, my definition still applies — founder or not.

      Once you understand that founders have little to do with my definition of religion, you’ll see that there is a lot of congruence between how I’ve defined it and how Geertz did, especially in points 1 and 2. Atheists are perfectly free to utilize “a system of symbols…to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations”. This can involve “formulating conceptions of a general order of existence” and striving to make “the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic”. In fact, making the moods long-lasting and realistic is pretty much the point of ritual, for an atheist anyway. The only thing you can’t do is “clothe [the] conceptions with… an aura of factuality”.

      “Supernatural” is a slippery word, because its definition is going to change over time. Essentially, it means “above nature” or “outside nature”. If a supernatural force causes a miracle of some sort to occur, then it has intervened in the normal order of things to create an outcome not usually possible. It seems to me that people use the term spiritual to mean communion with a supernatural aspect of the universe. They see themselves as merging with God, or having psychic experiences, or something like this. I wanted to separate my naturalistic, atheistic conception of spirituality from what I perceive as a supernatural conception of it. “Supernatural” and “spiritual” aren’t synonyms, in other words.

      I’m not sure what you mean when you say that you don’t like belief.
      Beliefs certainly can bias our view of reality, and can even prevent learning. But having carefully considered and reasoned beliefs can have the opposite effect, making you well-prepared to dispel bad notions. The alternative is simply to have no beliefs whatsoever. Reality far exceeds the bandwidth of human consciousness, and so this becomes a practical impossibility.

      As I pointed out in a part of the essay that you probably didn’t get to, I was a born-again Christian for many, many years. You thus can’t say that my definition of “religion” characterizes what I think about others while my definition of “atheist” is a self-label. Both definitions characterize myself and other people, since I have now been both.

      • Let me quote your definition of “religion”, excised from the exemplary sentence that follows: “the community, ritual, tradition, and mythology that builds up around a mystic, or contemplative.” (emphasis mine)

        If you remove the emphasized section, there is more congruence between your definition and Geertz’s (though I disagree that it’s really all that close), but that’s not what you wrote. Since I can only go by what you actually write, and not by what you currently believe that you intended (especially since I can’t actually know what you currently believe that you intended, as you may have revised your beliefs since you wrote this response), I was left with that strange definition. Now you contradict that to indicate that such a “mystic or contemplative” is unnecessary to your definition of “religion”. I am supposing that this means that you intended to write, “Religion: community, ritual, tradition, and mythology” full stop. I’ll try to read your essay using that one instead of the one that you originally wrote.

        You haven’t helped me to understand what you mean by “supernatural”. I am, as I indicated, aware of the dictionary definition. I am also, however, still at a loss to understand what could be separate from “nature”, even in principle.

        I don’t like beliefs because they are constraining and tend to prevent us from engaging with events as they occur. That said, I will back away a bit from what I wrote (we all get the opportunity to revise our words to increase precision in line with our current intentions) and say that I think that beliefs should not be privileged over perceptions and experiences. Beliefs are perhaps useful in that they allow us to make predictions about future events, but actual events should still take precedence over those predictions.

        It is interesting that you have been a member of two exclusivist intellectual traditions (both monotheism and modern atheism make exclusive claims to truth, and seem, from a polytheist or animist perspective to be rather similar – something that even the modern atheists point out with their fallacious argument about how “we’re all atheists with respect to Zeus”), and think that you then can make pronouncements about all intellectual traditions regarding religion, spirituality, etc. As I’ve said, your arguments seem, like most modern atheists’ arguments, to be disconnected from the majority of religious traditions on the planet, and targeted nearly exclusively at a very small subset (albeit a subset with a large population of followers) of religions.

        • Faoladh, I tend to agree with you on most things religion-oriented, but I’m not seeing your objection here.

          The quoted line, “the community, ritual, tradition, and mythology that builds up around a mystic, or contemplative,” also set off my alarms at first because I thought Trent was saying religion requires an individual founder, which is just not true. I assumed this is what you meant with your objection about Shinto and Santeria.

          However, in his response to you Trent clearly stated he does not mean that a religion must have a single founder. Given that clarification from him it seems best to interpret his definition as: “the community, ritual, tradition, and mythology that builds up around mystics, or contemplatives.”

          If your objection was indeed about requiring founders, then that has been resolved and it seems pedantic to keep arguing the point. If your objection is about something else then I don’t think it’s very clear and would love to see you explain in more detail.

          That said, you are quite right that both atheism and Christianity are exclusivist world-views and thus totally alien to polytheism. Funny I hadn’t made the connection before that both of Trent’s current/previous worldviews are exclusivist.

        • Drew: You wrote, “I’m not seeing your objection here.”

          I wasn’t aware that I was objecting further on that issue, and I apologize for my lack of clarity if it seems that I was. When I wrote, “I am supposing that this means that you intended to write, ‘Religion: community, ritual, tradition, and mythology’ full stop. I’ll try to read your essay using that one instead of the one that you originally wrote”, I was both attempting to confirm that I understood him correctly (if I am incorrect, he will attempt to correct my misunderstanding) and indicating that I accept his alteration to the original essay.

          In my initial paragraph, in which I quote his original definition, and in the first part of the following paragraph, I am only correcting his misapprehension about which portion of his essay particularly led to my failure to understand his intent. I probably could have done without that, in retrospect.

          I’m not sure where else in my response you might see any further discussion of that issue.

        • Rae says:

          One always hopes that one’s prose sparkles with clarity. Sadly, this is not always the case. Clearly, I implied that religions had to have founders, but I don’t think that to be the case. Thank you for drawing my attention to this inconsistency in my thought, and I hope I have clarified enough for you to read my essay. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts after that.

          Well, God would by definition transcend nature. But I share the notion that there isn’t anything in principle disconnected from nature. Unfortunately, ‘supernatural’ is part of the vernacular, and it’s the word I’m stuck with. The point was to emphasize the materialism of my definition of ‘spirituality’. Again, the word itself is a little treacherous, because it implies ‘nonmaterial’. I was just trying to note that you could accept my definition of spirituality without being committed to the existence of anything nonmaterial, supernatural, or whatever.

          We agree, beliefs shouldn’t be privileged over perceptions and experiences.

          I don’t have experience with all the world’s traditions, and I doubt you do either. We’re all forced to generalize to some degree. I try, as much as I can, to meet believers on their own nuanced terms whenever we engage in dialogue. Hence my ongoing correspondence with a Process Theologian and my writing for the blog of a polytheist. Invariably, I’m going to get some details wrong. However, I don’t think my arguments apply only to some tiny subset of religions. Nearly every religion I’ve studied (which I daresay might be more than you give me credit for) has posited the existence of some sort of God, gods, spirit world, or immaterial, animating force. Part of what I was trying to do with this essay is say that we can reject these claims in religion but find use in it’s rituals and mystical/spiritual practices. If there is a religion that posits none of these things, has no rituals or mythology, requires no Faith, and has no element of mysticism or spirituality, I’ve never heard of it. By all means, direct my attention there. Otherwise, I think something I’ve said in my essay will apply to any religion, if not perfectly.

          • Well, this is quite telling for starters:

            “God would by definition transcend nature. ”

            This statement means that your definitions automatically exclude almost all polytheistic and animistic religions in the world, which is to say the vast majority of human religion. By defining gods as transcendental you are limiting the scope of your comments almost exclusively to Christianity, Islam and a few others. Most polytheistic or animistic traditions conceive of the gods as immanent, not transcendental, which is to say they live in and are part of the natural world and play by its rules.

        • Rae says:

          Hmmm, my reply came across as a bit ham-fisted. Many religions, including parts of Christianity, reject the idea that God is transcendent, opting instead to see God as a force within the universe. Let me back up a bit and try meet one of Faoladh’s claims head on.

          He writes: “I am also, however, still at a loss to understand what could be separate from ‘nature’, even in principle.” A transcendent creator God would, by definition, be separate from nature. Not everyone believes in this sort of transcendent god(s). What do we do about their beliefs?

          In other writings and to some extent in this essay, I’ve defended the idea that it can be useful to think in religious modes. At some point in the future, I’ll probably write a piece for this blog about my views on metaphor-based spiritual technology. In a paper on this topic, I talked about how Jesus could be a sort of normative ethical idea, summoned in one’s mind at trying moments to remind one of one’s goals. Ishtar or Thor might make good normative ideals in other situations, and could in principle be summoned in the same manner. But what is important about this view is that these Gods exist as patterns in one’s mind, and nowhere else. A polytheist who sees gods acting in forces of nature is, in my view, still falling victim to the cognitive illusions I’ve discussed elsewhere in this comments section. As an atheist and a materialist, I think that the laws of physics are impersonal and unconscious. Tornados and hurricanes aren’t punishing anyone, and they aren’t expressions of the will of some god. They just happen. Likewise, flowers blooming or leaves changing color in the fall aren’t beauty created by a goddess. They also just happen. There is a profound metaphysical difference between saying “it can be useful to think in religious terms from a subjective standpoint” and saying “the gods I worship actually exist in a place that isn’t between my ears”.

          Though I find the beliefs of people who think of the gods as forces in the universe to be more palatable, I still don’t think those gods are any more real than a transcendent God.

  7. Rae and I have published an essay on atheism and panentheism elswhere: . I offer this response as a way of continuing the discussion. Let me say at the outset that, as theist myself, I am a great admirer of Trent’s work and find wisdom in his atheism. The only difference is that, as I understand God, Trent has faith in God, even as he does not have belief in God. I think faith is more important than belief…Let me explain:

    Paul Tillich distinguishes between three “distorted” understandings of faith. The voluntaristic distortion equates faith with an act of the will. The intellectualist distortion equates faith with intellectual assent to propositions without sufficient evidence. The affective distortion equates faith with a feeling.

    What, then, is faith apart from these distortions. Tillich defines it as ultimate concern, in which case Trent’s faith is Truth, including of course the Truth of atheism.

    But in the Jesus, Jazz, Buddhism website — – we define faith as trust in the availability of fresh possibilities for finding satisfaction in life, even when things seem hopeless. This trust is not an act of intellectual assent. A person may have “faith” in this sense and, at the very same time, be an atheist.

    As I make clear in my article with Trent in that website, most “atheists” are denying a very specific idea: namely that of a creator of the universe who knows the future in advance, creates the universe out of nothing, and intervenes from time to time to perform miracles. Let’s call this monarchicalism, since it envisions deity on the analogy of a political rule, typically a male monarch.

    But this particular image of theos is very different from the image I myself endorse as a process theologian. I myself endorse panentheism, not monarchicalism. Please see the article by Trent and me regarding this in JJB.

    But my point here does not concern monarchicalism or panentheism; it concerns faith. My suggestion is that Trent is quite filled with faith, as am I. His faith is found in his trust that readers, if given sufficient reasons, will abandon unjustified beliefs, including belief in God. He has faith in the potential goodness of human beings: that is, the potential for human beings to listen to evidence and allow their own thinking to be transformed by the evidence itself. The distinction between Goodness and God is not so sharp. It’s a difference of only one letter.

    • Trent does seem to believe that humans have the potential to be rational. But to me it seems like a stretch to call that “faith.” I suspect he believes in that human characteristic based on years of experience and observation – i.e, he has actually seen humans behave rationally and change their beliefs to suit the evidence.

      Believing in something based on observation is not faith, at least not the way Trent defines faith, and I agree with him on that point.

    • Rae says:

      Thank you for your reply Dr. McDaniel. I am certainly in no position to argue with anyone for playing with definitions of words, as I did it pretty egregiously in my essay. But I think “trust” or “hope” are better words for the sort of Faith you’re describing. Hope in the future, or faith in your own abilities, are great things worth cultivating. But, alas, they are quite different from the Faith about which I was speaking in my essay, which is steadfastly believing in something despite a lack of evidence or even mounting evidence to the contrary. I don’t have any problem with the sort of faith you’ve described here.

  8. Aaron says:

    I find much of Trent’s argument to be heavily dependent upon semantics and exceptions and exclusions based on highly subjective definitions.

    I choose to define atheism much more simply: the belief that there is no God.

    While psychology plays an important part in religion, I think intermingling the two muddies the waters and makes it easy to make an argument because much of psychology can be statistically proven or disproven while religion cannot be.

    There is a contradiction in Trent’s argument. The idea that subjective things like mysticism and spirituality are valid while criticizing equally subjective experiences like belief in God’s existence without evidence strikes me as playing favorites. An empiricist bias in Trent’s thinking makes this easier to do.

    In the event that there is no God, and we have no purpose, I argue that spirituality, mysticism, and our subjective experiences would be even less valid because they would be nothing more than states of consciousness into which we have tricked ourselves. All of our most sacred traditions would simply become excuses to enter euphoric states by triggering dopamine and serotonin receptors in the brain. All that trouble would accomplish the same thing as a synthesized chemical.

    I still hold that my friend’s arguments are more about criticizing the excesses of organized religion than they are about pure atheism. Like an earlier post mentioned, I would consider Trent to be more of an empiricist, secularist skeptic than a pure atheist. If Trent found empirical evidence of God, I think he would accept it right away. He would have to be at least swayed by his empiricist views alone. An atheist would say that such evidence is not evidence anyway, since there is no God in the first place.

    I also would argue that, strictly defined, there cannot be a “spiritual atheist” because that is an oxymoron. An atheist may enjoy altered states of consciousness via Trent’s mysticism and spiritualism, but in the end, that person is simply chasing the pleasures of altered consciousness. Altered consciousness means little if there is no grand purpose to existence. A good time, or pleasing experiences, do not count because they are transient. Rather than our existence being a thing of following a benevolent, divine plan with objective and everlasting implications, our existence would become nothing more than a hedonistic enterprise. Some people are fine with that. I am not.

    So I think we need to make a distinction between God as separate existence of diety/purpose and God as subjective human experiences. Atheism, to me, would seem to deal more with the former than with the latter. Indeed, an atheist would be more open to the latter, since an atheist tends to define things by human experience and not be a grand, divine plan.

    I also submit the following for consideration by my friend Trent. The quote was made in a very specific context, but I still find it relevant.

    “The most comical, and at the same time the saddest thing to see, is to see an atheist turn his irreligion into a cold, dry, unfeeling, heartless religion of its own. … In truth, our early unbelievers [atheist Jewish socialists] were, in their own way, just as fanatical, just as narrow minded, just as intolerant as the religious fanatic on whom they ward.”

    –American Jewish leader Abraham Cahan

    • Hi Aaron, and welcome to Rogue Priest. A couple things I’d like to ask you:

      First off, you write that, “An atheist would say that such evidence [i.e. empirical evidence of God] is not evidence anyway, since there is no God in the first place.” But the great majority of atheists are very pro-science, and use science to inform their view of the world. Do you truly believe that atheists would defiantly cling to their belief that their are no gods, in a hypothetical world where there was empirical evidence for the existence of gods?

      Secondly, it sounds to me like you have limited experience with religions outside of the Judeo-Christian category. It’s important to point out that there are established religions whose spirituality does not include any belief that “our existence being a thing of following a benevolent, divine plan with objective and everlasting implications”? An extreme example would be LaVeyan Satanism; some branches of Buddhism fit well as a more mainstream example. Given that some religions advocate a spirituality that doesn’t have this transcendental bent, why can’t atheists do the same? Why define spirituality in such a narrow way when millions of spiritual people define it differently with the full approval of their religions?

  9. Aaron says:

    Thanks. That is true. I’ll answer your concerns in a slightly out-of-order fashion. I am mostly addressing atheism from a Judeo-Christian standpoint because that is a context with which we are most familiar. Atheism in that context relies not so much on proving or disproving God, but on attacking the tenets of the faith. In this instance, I think many atheists fall into the trap of not being pure atheists, but rather being anti-Christians, which I think are distinct things that are often intermingled.

    And you have a good point about there being a larger role for mysticism and spiritualism in other faiths than in the Abrahamic religions, where these things are discouraged. However, even in Buddhism, there is some ultimate point, which is introspection, superior knowledge, and transcendence. Indeed, the idea that there is no point may be the point in many religions. But at least there is a point of purposelessness, and that is the plan. With atheism, there is no point because there is nothing beyond this. The practical implications may be the same, but I think the intentions are slightly different.

    Ultimately, however, I think playing with the definition of atheist is the problem. At various points in the thread, atheists have been interested in the spiritual and mystical while they are interested in empirical evidence for the existence of God. My philosophy knowledge is a little weak, but wouldn’t that make one more of a humanist?

    Again, I think the term atheist is extended a bit beyond its original meaning when it should be used more strictly: there is no supernatural world or gods beyond this one. That means no spiritualism and no mysticism and definitely no organized religion. And a true atheist would point out that transcendental experiences are meaningless because, as I said, they have a natural causes and effects. To think otherwise would give far more credence to the experiences of those on mind altering substances than these experiences are otherwise due.

    And yes, atheism can be just as confining as any organized religion if one adopts the viewpoint strongly enough. I think “South Park” addressed this concept in a very entertaining way during one episode. And that mindset is also the reason for my quote. For truly committed atheists, I think evidence of God would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If there were some kind of empirical evidence for the existence of God (and, arguably, the concept of intelligent design could be viewed this way), a truly committed atheist would find ways to dismiss this evidence as fanciful (ex: we just happened to evolve that way–there is no intelligence behind creation). An agnostic, on the other hand, might not think there is a God, but that person would be open to the possibility. The conclusion determines the evidence, in this case.

    I am defining atheism this narrowly because to define it more broadly would seem to encompass other viewpoints and philosophies that go beyond the term’s original meaning.

    Has anyone in this thread read Huston’s Smith’s “The Religions of Man?”

  10. Alright, let’s continue this discussion in a new thread.

    On your original essay, I’ll now just address your direct, open question: “do you think the benefits of ritual are content-independent? In other words, do you think that I would get similar benefits from engaging in Hindu rituals vs. Gaelic rituals vs. Christian rituals (again, not assuming that any of the gods of these religions actually exist)? If not, then why do different rituals yield different results? Would I lose something if I mixed and matched between them, or practiced them all in parallel?”

    No, the content of ritual is important. One might as well ask if the benefits/effects of art are content-independent (in fact, I’d say that it is exactly the same question). Specifically, the reason that different rituals yield different results is the same reason that I feel quite differently looking at the Mona Lisa than I do looking at Guernica (or listening to the Pastorale is different than listening to the Rites of Spring). Despite the fact that both Mona Lisa and Guernica are relatively indistinguishable in an objective sense (they are both composed primarily of canvas and paint), they have a very different effect on those who view them. That effect is increased in those who are aware of the context in which the works exist, but they are still meaningful and clearly of different emotional character to any human who looks at them.

    I don’t know, though, if you lose anything by mixing and matching. Or, more accurately, you’d lose one thing and gain another.

    We’re running into another strange area in which we may be using words to mean different things. You have said several times that “immaterial” things don’t exist. I’m not sure how you can say that, though, when there are a number of accepted, immaterial entities in scientific theory, such as fields or information. Either we mean something different by “immaterial” or we mean something different by “exist”. To me, if something can be experienced, then it exists. It is immaterial if it is not composed of matter (and I’d go so far as to say that energy, despite being equivalent to matter – or to put it another way matter being composed of a particular configuration of energy – is qualitatively different, and also immaterial).

    As for the issue of whether “gods” exist entirely between our ears or elsewhere, I remain agnostic and entirely unconcerned. I’m not actually sure what difference it makes. It’s one of those “belief” things that seem much less important than actual experience to me.

    • Rae says:

      I suspect you may be right in saying that the context of ritual is important. This will be an important question in my tentative steps into neopaganism.

      We operate outside of different paradigms, but I appreciate your thoughtful comments. I will reflect on what you’ve said.

  11. Rae says:

    I didn’t expect this big of a response when I wrote this essay, but I’m delighted at the conversation it has spawned. I counted on Drew having assembled a group of fiercely intelligent and thoughtful people, and I wasn’t disappointed. Unfortunately, I just can’t respond to every valid point you all have made, as I’m going to need to focus on some other projects for the time being. Let me thank you all for your time. If you haven’t already, subscribe to this blog. I have every intention of writing more guest posts in the future.

    As a gesture of goodwill to my interlocutors, and to try and learn the most from this public debate, I’m going to attempt to summarize several of the most pointed criticisms I’ve received. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive list.

    -I got in a little trouble for my definitions, but I expected that when I began.

    -I implied that religions have to have founders. That was misleading, as I don’t believe that. I was merely trying to point out that the rituals and myths and practices of a religion (which I defined as ‘religion’) could be useful to an atheist.

    -What counts as good evidence? Even most people practicing a faith-based religion seem to think they have good reasons for what they believe. Why (or why not) are they wrong?

    -What can we conclude on the basis of subjective experience and what can’t we conclude on the basis of that experience? Do millions of people feeling the presence of gods or God count as evidence that they/it exist?

    -What makes Science or Reason the supreme tool for uncovering Truth, as I’ve tacitly endorsed? How do we evaluate the metaphysical underpinnings of a philosophical system?

    -What is the meaningful difference, if any, between thinking the gods exist in your mind and thinking the gods exist in the world?

    -Can anything, in principle, be separate from nature? Is there even any such thing as an “immaterial” thing, a “supernatural” world, or a “transcendent being”? Does it even make sense to speak in these terms?

    -What sorts of arguments can be brought to bear against conceptions of gods as beings that operate within the universe and according to its laws? Several times in the discussion I slipped into arguing against the notion of a transcendent god, which is not god as many of you mean the term. I managed to briefly touch on my views in the comments, but I don’t think I’ve presented a clear objection to panentheism or polytheism yet. I will reflect on this, and perhaps write about it in the future.

    -Does practicing religion/mysticism/spirituality without embracing the concomitant belief in god or gods rob these practices of their validity? If human experience, even of the profound and numinous variety, is reducible to chemical signals in the brain, is there even any point? How do atheists and materialists find meaning in the world?

    Thanks again, everyone. You’ve given me much to think about. If there is anything you’d like to discuss, questions you’d like to ask, or topics you’d like to suggest I write about, contact me through my website. Just click through my name.

    Until next time.

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