The Evangelical Atheist :
I am has written a reply at the link posted above which addresses my essay about The Brights. My comments will follow this reprint of my original article.
Looking Toward a Bright Future
A Post Modern Priestess looks at the new wave of Non-Believers
I was watching the best show on HBO tonight, Real Time with Bill Maher, and I decided it was finally time to write this article. One of Bill's guests was George Carlin who joined him in his signature declamation of "religion". That was merely a trigger for me to go ahead and write this response to the "Bright" movement espoused by Richard Dawkins, among others. Once every few years I re-read Robert Anton Wilson's book Prometheus Rising and do some of the exercises. One of them involves immersing oneself in the literature of a group that you don’t belong to in an effort to understand their mind set. The theory is that this will make you more aware of your own reality tunnel. For this go ‘round, I subscribed to Free Inquiry magazine.
Free Inquiry is the official magazine of the Secular Humanist movement. Once upon a time, I thought the label “Secular Humanist” was just a slam TV preachers used to put down liberal heretics that weren’t adding to their coffers. As it turns out, there is a well-defined core of Secular Humanist… practitioners? Advocates? I’m not sure how you define a belief system that insists that it has none. I'll come back to that later.
Some of these Free Thinkers, Secular Humanists, Agnostics and Atheists are making a conscious effort to improve their P.R. Just as the homosexual community adopted the word Gay for their very own to make their perfectly natural variations more palatable --- or at least less threatening -- to those with no taste for diversity, the Unbelievers are taking on a new label. In an attempt to sound less subversive and more user-friendly, they now wish to be known as Brights. They’re careful to point out that Bright is a noun, not an adjective. They don’t want to sound smug or condescending. (I’m afraid that ship may have sailed.) They want to start organizing around their non-belief so that they can win friends and influence elections.
On the whole, I support the Brights in their efforts, and am eagerly watching their attempts to revamp their image. Generally speaking, a trend toward rational discourse in policy and politics would be a great thing in this age of right wing ideologues who rewrite science to suit their own narrow agenda. As the venerable Mr. Carlin pointed out, there is a distinct dearth of Critical Thinking these days. I would like to point out, though, that a little cynicism goes a long, long way. I’d also like to state that I believe their premise to be flawed.
Religion (as in "belief") n.: a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny; 1
Brights define themselves as having a Naturalistic worldview, with no supernatural elements. That sounds perfectly simple and reasonable, if you accept the definition of religion quoted above. They’ve drawn a pretty clear dichotomy but frankly, I don’t feel comfortable on either side of the spiritual divide.
The first two issues of Free Inquiry gave me a headache. I mean literally caused me pain because, seriously, how many ways can you say “religion is wrong” in one average magazine? For every 20 or thirty “they’re wrong’s”, they’d throw in a few “we're right’s” and only an occasional "we can be good people without being afraid of going to hell" essay. It was draining. Then, toward the end of the second issue, I had an epiphany. If I substituted the word Patriarchy for the word Religion, I agreed with almost every point they were making.
That’s the crux of the problem. I don’t agree with their definition of religion. For example the “supernatural” tag is inaccurate. Yes, I believe in subtle forms of energy and spirit that they would label as being outside of nature. I consider these to be perfectly normal, natural phenomena. My own experiences tell me that humans and animals alike have at least 6 senses. Only humans stunt their intuitive gifts out of social training and political pressure. A fully functional human uses more than just the left frontal lobe in interacting with the world. It isn’t that my view is not “Naturalistic”, it’s that I define Nature differently. The fact that we don’t have instruments to measure a thing yet doesn’t mean there’s nothing there to measure. It just means we have more to learn.
My religion does not require any sacrifice; Pagans don’t proselytize; we don’t seek control over anything but ourselves; there are no nationalistic, chauvinistic or militaristic elements. It would never occur to us to force our views on others, let alone try to legislate our beliefs to control your behavior. Most importantly, we believe in Science.
That’s another problem I have with the Bright point of view. They, like many Patriarchists, believe that Science and Religion are incompatible. They don’t have to be. One of my core requirements for my belief system is that it has to be consistent with Science. I consider evolution to be the birth process on a planetary scale. Earth, a.k.a. Gaia, gave birth to the life on her in a particular process that is mimicked in the development of the human fetus in the womb. In other words, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. No conflict.
The one difference in my view of Science and the defined “Naturalistic” view is that I don’t ignore the anomalies. I know that the Theory of Evolution is just that – a theory. It has holes. There are still aspects of it that are incomplete, and there’s some archeological data that doesn’t fit neatly into the package, so I consider it a model that can be used to describe life, but not the literal canon that a Bright might profess it to be. Recognizing the flaws doesn’t put me in the same category as the Creationists, so I don’t appreciate being lumped in with them. There’s a difference in science and scientolatry. P.E.I. Bonewits describes Scientolatry as “using science as religion”. The two defining elements of Scientolatry are that 1) it is not a religion and 2) all other religions are superstition. It has been my experience that many of the most vocal and best-educated Brights are firmly in this category.
Using science in this way can engender a kind of arrogance that makes it difficult for any real communication between religious and non-religious people. There’s a conceit in the attitude that we know everything through science. We’ve only begun to understand the universe. If you think we have all the answers, go read some of the latest discoveries in quantum physics. Quantum Mechanics work across time and space in ways that are turning the scientific community on its ear. If scientists really want to understand Entanglement, they’d be well advised to study magick. (That’s magick with a K not magic with a C like the rabbit-in-a-hat bit they do in Vegas.) The universe is not linear or logical. It isn’t symmetrical, or precise, though it does follow certain patterns and equations, as does any organism. As fond as the intelligentsia may be of the “universe as computer” model, they will always be disappointed if they use such a sterile symbol for our vibrant reality. She -the universe- is not a computer. She is a living being.
As a Pagan, I'd like to have natural alliances in both the Naturalistic and Religious communities. We all share an interest in Freedom of Religion. That would seem the most basic area of agreement, yet it is the most contentious. True Believers in any system can be difficult to deal with if they aren’t capable of the emotional detachment that allows us to consider that our opinions and perceptions might be in error. I’ve often thought that a class in Sensation and Perception like the one I took in my Psychology studies would benefit people in this area. If people came out of high school with a clear picture of the subjective nature of “reality”, it would make it easier for them to allow for someone else’s point of view. As it is, we often demand that others alter their views to adapt to our own. Since that rarely happens, we remain in conflict. Frankly, it's working against us all.
There's a concerted effort to establish a theocracy in America. If that happens, it will be to the detriment of everyone, religion or no, who does not subscribe to the narrow Christo-fascist doctrine being insinuated into the courts and into our laws. If we don't get very clear on who the enemy really is in this fight, we give them the upper hand. Ultimately, this is not about what we believe or don't. It's about the efforts of a few to control the wealth and limit the liberty of an entire culture as they cloak themselves in a fictitious mantle of "faith". Their actions belie their feigned beliefs, and misdirection is a classic Republican technique. By focusing on Religion instead of the Patrist/Fascist program hiding behind it, we let them pull the ultimate bait and switch on moderate, well-meaning people who want to do the right thing.
So I do look forward to a "Bright" future, but I appeal to them not to get mired in arguing the tenants of Faith. I ask them to stand with the rest of us, believers or not, who treasure the right to choose for ourselves whether to believe, and what. Many little groups carving for themselves can instigate skirmishes, but a united front of many can win wars. An air of pluralism will benefit us all much more than the "us vs. them" approach I see now.
Addendum: Since beginning this article, the Secular Humanist movement has rejected the "Bright" meme officially, though the movement still exists. My perception is that they may be looking at the equivalent of the "Witch Wars" that plague the Pagan community. My advice would be the same thing I advocate for us - to forget about the minutiae and focus on the real goals of solidarity, freedom, and inclusion.
1Definition from Nisus Thesaurus
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Here are my comments, which reference certain parts of I Am's post:
Nice reply! I know we will ultimately have to agree to disagree on some points, but I do want to address a few things. First - ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. The page you linked to on wikipedia says the following:
"The theory of recapitulation, also called the biogenetic law or "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny", is a hypothesis in biology first espoused in 1866 by the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, which has been discredited in its absolute form, although recognised as being partly accurate. In biology, ontogeny is the embryonal development process of a certain species, and phylogeny a species' evolutionary history. Observers have noted various connections between phylogeny and ontogeny, explained them with evolutionary theory and taken them as supporting evidence for that theory." [emphasis mine]
And that's what I did - I used the theory to describe evolution as birth on a planetary scale. I believe that the correlation is sufficient in this context.
Morgaine makes science and religion fit together by only using science in one direction: backward. Anything science has proven or thoroughly demonstrated must be incorporated into her beliefs. In this way, her views are very much like the Dalai Lama’s.
Who exactly uses science "forward"? Wouldn't that defy logic?However, like Tibetan Buddhists, she is free to believe anything that science has not explicitly disproven.
That's not an accurate statement. I am free to incorporate my own experiences and perceptions into my definition of reality, and to temper that with the knowledge that perception varies widely from one individual to the next. If I perceive something to be true, I do usually require that it be proven false before I accept a conclusion that conflicts with my perception. We are imperfect beings, but I don't think that logic is any different than that used by Atheists. The fact that I have had an experience that you have not had doesn't mean the experience didn't happen.
I think Morgaine would agree with point 2 from my Statement of (dis)Beliefs: “The concept of ’supernatural’ is absurd and meaningless. Anything that exists is completely and totally natural.” However, the meaning of this statement would be very different to her.
Yes, I agree with that. I don't think my meaning differs that much from yours. To continue:
I don’t agree with their definition of religion. For example the ’supernatural’ tag is inaccurate. Yes, I believe in subtle forms of energy and spirit that they would label as being outside of nature. I consider these to be perfectly normal, natural phenomena. My own experiences tell me that humans and animals alike have at least 6 senses. Only humans stunt their intuitive gifts out of social training and political pressure. A fully functional human uses more than just the left frontal lobe in interacting with the world. It isn’t that my view is not ‘Naturalistic’, it’s that I define Nature differently. The fact that we don’t have instruments to measure a thing yet doesn’t mean there’s nothing there to measure. It just means we have more to learn.
There is no logical difference between this position and that of a theist who argues that belief in god is consistent with science because scientists can’t disprove god’s existence. As I’ve said before, I don’t think it’s possible to disprove the existence of god, and by the same token, it’s not possible to disprove the existence of “subtle forms of energy and spirit.” To have faith in that which is unfalsifiable with the caveat that you will stop believing in it if it is falsified is intellectually dishonest and logically indefensible.
I agree that you cannot "disprove" anything, by definition. I'm not having faith in something "unfalsifiable" - I am giving credence to my experiences and perceptions. I am looking at instances where I have encountered non-corporeal entities that relayed usable, verifiable, information. I am using the experiences I have had in reading thoughts and emotions in others; in foretelling events that could not logically have been forecast which did come to pass and which did so with far greater frequency than could be explained by chance; in having "seen" distant places and actions with great accuracy; of having used my intuitions and perceptions to practical ends in my own life. The difference is that I do not dismiss these events as "mere coincidence" or "my imagination" - they have proven useful, are reasonably consistent and there does exist scientific evidence in addition to copious anecdotal evidence that these are common experiences.
I have to admit that I bristle a bit at the phrase "intellectually dishonest and logically indefensible." Logic cannot account for every phenomenon that exists. It can be used to evaluate events or perceptions or things, but it isn't all that there is. I have never been to Japan. Would it be logical for me to argue that there is no such place because I have never seen it? Pictures can be tampered with; people's accounts are often inaccurate and their perceptions skewed. Would it be logical for me to refuse to go and see if it is there because I have decided it must not be so? Would denying my own experience upon seeing it because it cannot exist be logical? To me, that is what the non-believer does by dismissing my experience. You may say you doubt that a thing has happened; you may say that my interpretation is flawed or inaccurate; you will not dissuade me that it did happen, though, and your dismissal of the possibility is not sufficient for me to discount my own experience. While the "science" - which is a tool of a patriarchal system designed more to control the consensus reality than to define it - is inconclusive, we will each have to find our own way.Morgaine and I diverge on a subtle semantic point that is critical to the relationship between science and magick. I would say that if scientists really want to understand magick, they’d be well advised to study entanglement.
Not really. I agree with that statement as well. Magick is simply science that has been forgotten and not yet rediscovered.However, I believe a psychiatrist is better equipped to study that particular phenomenon than is a physicist.
I'm not clear on what you mean by that. Entanglement is a property of quantum mechanics that describes the relationship between two particles. It was recently discovered that Entanglement is not bound by time, but can in fact work backwards in time. It's way beyond Newtonian Physics, and probably even a bit beyond Einstein. It is perfectly consistent with what I have observed to be true about magick.
The scientists making the discovery were in such disbelief that they initially denied what they were observing. There is nothing scientific or logical about denying what you are emperically observing to be true, or to assume that others are wrong because you do not share their experience. To assume that something can't happen, then deny it when it does based on that assumption is madness, not logic.On the positive side, from personal experience and anecdotal evidence, I would suggest that Wicca often serves as a “gateway religion,” ultimately leading to atheism. If Christianity is heroin, then Wicca is methadone. It’s not quite as addictive, not quite as dangerous, and it can help ease withdrawal, but it’s not a permanent solution. While the latter can help us eliminate the former, it too must ultimately be eliminated for mankind to recover completely.
That's a little condescending, though I see your point. I don't believe Wicce is any more dangerous than the Bill of Rights, or scientific theory. Any idea can be abused or made to create harm. That's not a reason to abandon an idea with merit. I do believe there are positive reasons to use Wicce's more poetic view of the world than the cold, logical scientific view. If we recognize that we are part of a larger system, we are less apt to abuse that system. A person who sees the ocean as Gaia's womb is going to be less likely to find dumping noxious chemicals into it. A person who is tuned in to subtle energies is usually more empathetic than those who ignore those energies. And I believe that it is better for a human to believe in something than in nothing. We are psychologically better suited to believe that there is something larger than ourselves, and that life has meaning. I'll admit that my experience with atheists is limited, but so far, my impression is that they're mostly angry and bitter. There's reason to be anger in this world, but sneering at people isn't going to improve the situation.
As I said, we'll have to agree to disagree. Great discussion, though! Thanks!