Category Archives: skepticism

Facts and Doubts

I have doubts based upon indisputable facts, but I do not have indisputable doubts.

Two easy ways to recognize social cohesion in church communities

1. A sudden shift in a newcomer’s interaction style (social insight has been conveyed to the newcomer).

2. A change in facial expressions from ministerial spouses (pillow talk about workaday aggravations).

A key to questioning the “fruits of the Spirit” and “spiritual growth” is to notice social consensus maintains a greater value than loving enemies or neighbors.

In other words, human social groups act like human social groups, regardless of the particular shibboleth.

If we are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, then the accuracy or the particulars of the stories aren’t so important as the social consensus that carries them.

An unconventional observation brings about fear because of both its implications about the nature of the social group and its threat to acceptance by the tribe.

Louis C.K. on Saturday Night Live: skeptical of skeptics

Last night, Louis C.K. was the guest host on Saturday Night Live. Here’s an excerpt from his very funny opening stand-up comedy:

“I’m not religious. I don’t know if there’s a God. That’s all I can say honesty is, I don’t know. Some people think that they know that there isn’t. That’s a weird thing to think you can know. ‘Yeah, there’s no God.’ Are you sure? ‘Yeah, no, there’s no God.’ How do you know? ‘Because I didn’t see him.’ There’s a vast universe. You can see for about a hundred yards when there’s not a building in the way. How could you possibly — did you look in everywhere? Did you look in the downstairs bathroom? ‘Nah, I haven’t seen him yet.’ I haven’t seen 12 Years A Slave yet. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” (To the best of my DVR transcription skills.)

And a bit earlier in his opening act, this:

“I don’t think women are better than men, but I do think men are worse than women.”

Take a look at this New York Times article on Saturday Night Live: “The God of ‘SNL’ will see you now.”


Can you rest in skepticism? Nope. Kant.

“Skepticism is a resting place for human reason, where it can reflect on its dogmatic wanderings. But it is no dwelling place for permanent settlement. Simply to acquiesce in skepticism can never suffice to overcome the restlessness of reason.”  – Immanuel Kant  (h/t to Fide Dubitandum)

Where’s the ‘heart’? The brain’s role in belief, feeling, and decision-making

I remember Bishop Lawrence saying something like this: the heart desires and the will justifies. Or, maybe it was, the heart desires, the mind rationalizes, the will actualizes. Something along those lines. Desire for something comes first, rationalization/justification second, and then actualization.  

This thing called the “heart” in Christian circles — it is not the organ that pumps blood but rather an inner orientation toward something or some things. In Christianspeak, the “heart” is the most crucial part of the person, the desiring element of us, the ultimate guide underneath the surface of belief and behavior.

But that point of view seems less and less of an adequate explanation of reality. Consider the following true story from the Sydney Morning Herald:

Elliot had a small tumour cut from his cortex near the brain’s frontal lobe.  He had been a model father and husband, holding down an important management job  in a large corporation and was active in his church. But the operation changed  everything.

Elliot’s IQ stayed the same – testing in the smartest 3 per cent – but, after  surgery, he was incapable of  decision. Normal life became impossible. Routine  tasks that should take 10 minutes now took hours. Elliot endlessly deliberated  over irrelevant details: whether to use a blue or black pen, what radio station  to listen to and where to park his car. When contemplating lunch, he carefully  considered each restaurant’s menu, seating and lighting, and then drove to each  place to see how busy it was. But  Elliot still couldn’t decide where to eat.  His indecision was pathological.

Elliot was soon sacked. A series of new businesses failed and a con man  forced him into bankruptcy. His wife divorced him. The tax office began  investigating him. He moved back with his parents. As neurologist Antonio  Damasio put it: “Elliot emerged as a man with a normal intellect who was unable  to decide properly, especially when the decision involved personal or social  matters.”

But why was Elliot suddenly incapable of making good decisions? What had  happened to his brain? Damasio’s first insight occurred while talking to Elliot  about the tragic turn his life had taken. “He was always controlled,” Damasio  remembers, “always describing scenes as a dispassionate, uninvolved spectator.  Nowhere was there a sense of his own suffering, even though he was the  protagonist …  I never saw a tinge of emotion in my many hours of conversation  with him: no sadness, no impatience, no frustration.” Elliot’s friends and  family confirmed Damasio’s observations: ever since his surgery, he had seemed  strangely devoid of emotion, numb to the tragic turn his own life had taken.

Now consider the above: Elliot cannot make decisions because of something that happened in his brain, not in his “heart.” His emotions have been neutralized because of something that happened in his brain, not in his “heart.”

To make proactively good or bad moral decisions, to have good or bad feelings toward God, to decide any number of things related to expressing or living one’s faith — all of these critical elements of spirituality are no longer available to him as a result of a problem with his brain.

These observations should give any believer pause. What do you mean when you say “heart”? Could it be there’s no “ghost in the machine,” no intangible presence attached to our biological organism? Could it be our “spiritual experiences” are tricks of the brain?

If nothing else, Elliot’s story should change the language of devotional life and church communal life. “Heart” should no longer be treated as an intangible part of reality but rather as a metaphor for brain functions.

Furthermore, why are apologetics still grounded in abstract arguments rather than critical assessments of facts? Can we really look at new research without considering its implications? Can we really just make broad-brush statements about “chronological snobbery” and “materialistic naturalism” when Western Christians constantly benefit from medical and technological advances from research based in the naturalist point of view? (Even when there are reasonable, contemporary critiques of that point of view.)

Read the rest of the story about Elliot and comment below.

‘Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a Perilous World,” or why no one really listens

The late French Protestant leader Jacques Ellul in his book Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a Perilous World

“They comply unfailingly with the law and the commandments. They are unbending in their convictions, intolerant of any deviation. In the articulation of belief they press rigor and absolutism to their limits. They precisely delimit the frontiers between believers and unbelievers. They unceasingly refine the expression of their belief and seek to give it explicit intellectual formulation in a system as coherent and complete as possible. They insist on total orthodoxy. Ways of thinking and acting are rigidly codified.”

And a quotation from Daniel Taylor: “Legalism is one more expression of the human compulsion for security.”

The price of admission

About a year ago, Rob and I were talking about a community event that was being planned by Trinity. Rob said he wanted to make sure there was absolutely no admission cost to the event, which I thought was great.

Being reflexively (and usually too much) afraid that my church will mimic certain manipulative aspects of the evangelical subculture, I brought up a news report I once saw, from somewhere in America: A Christian minister had set up a skateboard park for the kids in his neighborhood, and they were invited to play and have fun on one condition. They had to take some time out to listen to the minister preach. The images caught by the camera were both hilarious and devastating: the kids obviously were bored as they sat through the sermon, with some facial expressions bordering on resentment.

Rob said, for those skateboarders, suffering through a sermon was the price they paid for admission to the skateboard park — exactly the kind of thing he wanted to avoid at the community event we were talking about. That’s something I really admire about Rob — he wants to treat people like people, not like numbers and statistics. No gimmicks. The agenda is clearly stated.

(Along those lines, I also think of the Christian professor I had at a state university who thought the crowd-drawing techniques of a popular evangelistic organization were “devious.” His own son was a leader in the organization, and he still said, “devious.”)

Lately, I’ve been thinking about that conversation with Rob in a somewhat different context: in relation to work I’ve been doing with the online project that I frequently mention on this blog.

When I decided to change the mission statement of LiturgicalCredo to “contemporary stories of faith and doubt,” a Christian gentleman I’ve known all my life was incredulous and even a bit condescending: “And doubt?” he snorted.

In fairness to the Christian gentleman, doubt is not considered the hallmark of a passionate, strong faith, as noted here.

In fairness to me, I think that particular gentlemen believes too much, and believes far too quickly.

Either way, as I invite writers of all stripes to publish in LiturgicalCredo, I’ve been thinking about the price of admission, and my thoughts about the conversation with Rob have become braided with a vision I had a few years ago for an alternate Sunday morning service: instead of a worship service, an open, public forum, in which anyone could come for a civil discussion of beliefs, faith, religious affiliation, and skepticism.

Bring your lapsed Catholicism; bring your unassailable logic; bring your energy fields.

Heck, bring your UFOs.

I thought such a public forum would be better than church, because there was (is) so little clear thinking and honest discussion — little conceptual clarity, either — when it comes to varied beliefs and convictions and the various way we seek to apply them. In my mind, there seemed to be too much going on intellectually and religiously in our culture, too many assumptions just trucking along with abandon and no mechanism for critique. It seemed like the right thing to do was to examine and test rather than to entrench.

Much of that thought process reflected my frustrations with my adult experiences of glib evangelicalism. Today, I would not want to regularly replace Sunday morning worship with such a public forum.

However, as I look at LiturgicalCredo, I think the way to keep the price of admission free is to offer a place where anyone can share his or her literary expressions of the very-human experiences of faith and doubt; odd pathways to belief and resounding statements of skepticism; salvation and falling away.

It’s not to make relativism out of pluralism — that’s not where I’m coming from. The conceptual confusion between those two terms, relativism and pluralism, is a worthy conversation, but one for another field.

Literary and artistic works usually have experiences and emotions as their subjects, even when memories and feelings are being evaluated or questioned. I don’t think we should expect systematic theology or philosophical perfection from art (although it’s great to find them). How events happen, and how they make us feel, aren’t always shaped by rational, logic, deliberative thought.

No one would place C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed in the same category as his Abolition of Man.

Sharing emotions and experiences, broadly, we can know the emotional and experiential weight behind other perspectives. To let someone speak individually and tell a tale that counters my own is one way to offer a literary, artistic forum in which the price of admission remains free.

I do, however, want to lean toward literary expressions. I’m not sure if UFOs fit in there, but hey, I’ll take a look.