unexamined belief: spiritual atheism?

here, finally, is the continuation of my conversation with jan about spirituality and atheism.

says jan:

well, really, how could mulder [from the X-files] possibly have believed in UFOs? something for which there is no tangible proof. he would have had to believe simply on the basis of … faith. that would be silly.

believe simply on the basis of … faith. that would be silly.

i’ll use these dictionary definitions to help me think about the word “faith”:

  • confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another’s ability.
  • belief that is not based on proof: he had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.
  • belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards of merit, etc.: to be of the same faith with someone concerning honesty.

the silliness, i presume, refers to the idea that there is no logical reason to believe in a god. yes, i said ‘idea. not ‘fact’ because some people – good old pascal and his wager being one of the more solid examples – would argue that there are logical reasons. but let’s just assume that there is no such logical reason.

i have lots of non-logical reasons why i do and think things. indeed, i assume most of my reasons aren’t very logical. i love my children, dislike liquorice and don’t much care for opera. i go out of my way to write poetry and am proud of the rubbermaid sticker on my laptop.

“ah, but these are personal preferences! they’re your private business!”

i am against capital punishment. i believe adequate housing is a right not a privilege. i am pro choice.

ok, we’ve moved out of the personal now. but you know what, if i’m honest, at rock bottom, the reasons for these values are also, how should i put it, extra-logical. the way in which i hold these values dear is not much different from the way i love my children.

is a belief in god different? (and some of you may remember, i don’t “believe” in god per se; i believe in goodness. but that’s beside the point for now.)

perhaps it goes like this: if a belief in god is unexamined, the way my dislike for liquorice is unreflected and if far-reaching decisions are based on such an unexamined belief, then we could have a problem.

let’s throw something else in the mix. jan says

i suspect that many “religious” people don’t really believe. they just want to believe.

and in the meantime they’ll go to all the meetings, listen to all the same old stories from the same books, always hoping that some day they’ll attain that elusive state of belief/faith they keep hearing so much about.

these “religious” people are actually spiritual atheists: they’re atheists as they don’t believe in any deity, and they are spiritual as they’re very concerned with religion, the sacred, the spirit.

does “don’t really believe” refer to an unexamined belief? is it maybe the same as with love – what seems like love, on reflection, frequently turns out to be a craving for the feeling that comes with love-like experiences: being wanted, needed, cared for and cared about; if it’s romantic love, the crazy hormonal surges; knowing that we’re not alone; and generally the warm-and-fuzzies. love as work is often not what we really want to sign up for: staying up all hours of the night to make sure our teenage children come home ok; working on being tolerant of the other’s incomprehensible foibles; supporting our loved ones’ decisions because they’re good for them, even when they tear at our heartstrings.

perhaps it’s the same with faith. most people probably go with comfortable faith: the jubilant choir at christmas mass; the solemnity – never mind the ample buffet – of a funeral; the this-is-the-way-it’s-done of the wedding of a couple that hasn’t darkened the doors of a church for ten years. however, going to the trouble of engaging with god – well, that’s just a lot of work.

these are probably regular congregants of the church of spiritual atheists. great concept, jan, by the way. and i would add that these congregants aren’t even that concerned with religion, much less the sacred or spirit.

i used to be very critical of them; indeed, they are a major reason why as a teenager, i refused to get confirmed in the lutheran church, despite the fact that at that time, confirmation was the biggest and most gift-laden event in the life of a person of that faith.

now i feel much more ambivalent.

is a faith that is not well-thought-out less valuable than one that is deeply examined? and just because someone’s relationship with their deity is not very close, does it mean that relationship has little or no meaning?

i don’t know. what do you think?

25 thoughts on “unexamined belief: spiritual atheism?

  1. Evan

    I don’t think reason is god.

    Finally, linear reason and logic is devoid of values – and this is a big problem. Is it logical to kill someone standing in front of me in the queue so I get served quicker? I think this is a values question not a logic question. We don’t live our lives by reason.

    Proof is also tricky. I’ve watched sunrise on occasion (not many, I’m not a morning person). I haven’t watched ‘earth-spin’ though this is what is ‘really’ what I was watching.

    If religious people want to believe it is worth examining this desire I think. Just labelling and condemning it doesn’t get us much further forward.

    Belief is tricky too. I think people have experiences and use labels and symbols to communicate them and communicate about them. I think it worth enquiring what the experience is that people are seeking to communicate when they say “god” or “spirit”.

    A Mr Hume a while ago pointed out that it was not possible to have certainty if you wished to remain open to new data (my very rough interpretative summary). Belief is never exhaustively justified.

    For myself, I value wholism. I find the kind of ‘faith’ that demands the sacrifice of thought to be barbaric and violent (and inconsistent with a god of love or peace). But a faith that is quite unreflective and motivates a life of generosity and compassion I would find admirable.

    This has turned it to a long comment. Hope it’s coherent.

    Evan’s last blog post..Your Neighbour and Your Self: Which First?

  2. Ex - Alcoholic

    I would agree with Evan that a dogmatic and unconsidered approach to faith is generally harmful, and a yet an unconsidered but positively spiritually and ethically guiding approach to faith (or religion) is generally a positive.

    But to the question ending the original post, I do not beleive an unconsidered take on faith offers as much of value. Spiritual beliefs at best are a guiding force for the everyday- – but also for the extreme and traumatic days. An unconsidered faith may work just fine when things are going along OK – but when things are going badly and everything seems stacked against you – unless you have already made intellectual peace with your belief system and how that influences your world – then how can you continue to rely on it – when your “god” has seemingly let you down so severely.

  3. Jan Karlsbjerg

    I thought I’d start by saying that the two excerpts that you quote from my blog post above have different “voices”. The first excerpt is written in the voice of someone who thinks that Christianity (or other of society’s accepted religions) is a reasonable and normal belief whereas belief in UFOs is weird (clearly not me). The second excerpt is written in my voice.

    I’ll be back with a proper reply later when I’ve let this bounce around in my head for a while. 🙂

    Jan Karlsbjerg’s last blog post..Quote of the Day

  4. isabella mori

    re logic: a year ago, there was an article in the new yorker, entitled the pope and islam. it mentions that pope benedict belongs to those who believe “that christianity is a fundamentally rational discourse – as the west, grounded in greek philosophical inquiry, understands reason—and as such not ultimately comprehensible, even for argument’s sake, outside the judeo-christian tradition.”

    an interesting point. my tongue-in-cheek translation: christianity is all about circular logic. a more amicable way of looking at it would be to say that one needs to “comprehend” (= accept?) the faith basis of the judeo-christian tradition but once that is in place, one can proceed with logic.

    @evan when you say “a faith that is quite unreflective and motivates a life of generosity and compassion i would find admirable.” – can you tell me more about that unreflective faith?

    @ex – alcoholic, are you saying that to prepare for tough times, it’s good to send one’s faith through a sort of intellectual fire?

  5. Jeff

    Hello Isabella and Everyone,
    I thought it was quite a coincidence when you were talking about faith, and my entry today was also about: Faith in my Heart! I am a Christian but I don’t feel like it is my place to impose any of my beliefs onto anyone else, that’s your business not mine.
    I believe in God, it is part of who I am; my preferences if you will. We are all the same…human beings and just because one person’s beliefs, aren’t the same as someone else’s, doesn’t change the fact that we are one race, human.
    I wrote about my religious beliefs because that’s what I feel in my heart, but that doesn’t mean I expect everyone else to feel the same way, we are all different and unique.
    I am so glad that we live in a free country where we can believe anything we want, without worrying about persecution because of what we believe.
    Enjoy Life!

  6. Evan

    Hi Isabella.

    What I meant by saying
    “a faith that is quite unreflective and motivates a life of generosity and compassion” was that for some people their faith is not intellectually problematic. (For most of history this was the case for most believers.) It is still the case for some people.

    For these people they simply ‘know God’ and it is for them ‘just the way it is’. (I would say that they use the label “god” and this adequately labels their experience for them.)
    These people can be quite good – compassionate and hospitable. They have my admiration (I tend to focus on ethics rather than metaphysics. In psychological terms I find values to be a broader category than reason.) I don’t find intellectual sophistication necessary to a good life (though it is certainly not inconsistent with it, for those who are thinkers – like me).

    It may that Jeff who left a comment has this kind of non-problematic faith: I’d like to hear more about this from him.

    I hope this clarifies.

    Evan’s last blog post..Your Neighbour and Your Self: Which First?

  7. Nancy

    I wonder if there’s an element of right-brain/left-brain in the mix: right-brain as a faith that is immediate and as Jeff said “in the heart” v. left-brain which is codified and becomes theology (and can leave the heart behind). Hope I got my right and left brain characteristics straight, Isabella?
    I’m not sure the pope is being as circular as you might think. My own ‘coming of faith’ was purely decision – one day on my bike to UBC I decided I preferred a worldview with God in it (and I opted for christianity) rather than not. These decisions – and I think we all make them, either to God,or goodness, or atheism are based on a collection of a priori assumptions, yes? Have any of us truly started from neutral and arrived at our faith/or not decisions by reason? I don’t think so (open to being challenged though) If I’m right on this, aren’t *all* our world views then rather circular?

    Nancy’s last blog post..Friday Fun: going completely off topic, even for a Friday Fun day ?

  8. Evan

    Hi Nancy,

    I don’t think neutral is possible.

    But I don’t think the whole of our worldviews are circular. If they were I don’t see how they could be changed (and we do change them).

    The inter-relationship between thought, belief and faith is a fascinating area I think.

    Evan’s last blog post..Big Benefits of a Little Exercise.

  9. Samuel Skinner

    Actually, god belongs with science. After all, science does deal with wheter or not something exists- and the existance of something isn’t a matter of opinion. It either is there or it isn’t.

  10. isabella mori

    @jan i agree with you – of course gods exist in the minds of those who believe in them. i suggest the weight of this statement depends on the degree to which we believe that this is true for everything else, i.e. the degree to which we believe in solipsism (vs. realism vs. constructivism).

    @evan – which science would be adequate to god?

    and an interesting question could be: what is the difference between an uncomplicated belief and an unexamined one?

    @nancy the way i interpreted pope benedict’s idea was that he was saying “in order to understand christianity you have to understand christianity”.

    what i hear you say is, “i arrived at my not entirely logical decision X by basing it on the not entirely logical assumption Y.” basing something on an a priori belief, i.e. a rock-bottom assumption, doesn’t mean the logic is circular. (please correct me if i misinterpreted you!)

    and @jeff, yes, indeed, we are extremely lucky that we can have conversations like these out in the open. i am grateful.

  11. Nancy

    too tuckered to respond as I’d like, but had to comment (where is D Drucker when we need him): one famous musician (Beethoven?) is reputed, when questioned about why a piece was any good, simply to reply to the person that they need to listen and listen over to it until they figured it out. (similar to the pope saying you need to understand xianity to understand xianity)

    Nancy’s last blog post..Freebie (or nearly)Wednesday: Set Sales and Free ?taming the credit monster? seminar

  12. isabella mori

    @nancy of course there is some merit to that. you could say that in order to understand philosophy, one needs to understand philosophy, or in order to understand psychology, one needs to understand psychology.

    on a gut level, though (you know, quite unexamined 🙂 ) i’d say it sounds darned elitist.

  13. Evan

    There is much debate about the science adequate to god in the history of the West. (In other traditions also I think but in different terms.)

    To my mind for a modern science to be adequate to this it would need to get beyond the objective/subjective split (if we take god to be in some sense a part of our own experience and the world out there. St Paul spoke of ‘living, moving and having our being’ in god. That is it would need to start from some kind of phenomenology. Ken Wilbur has tried something like this (though his system is pretty standard Buddhist-idealist – I’ve even heard him endorse Descarte’s transcendental ego).

    These are some ideas I have about a basic direction to set out in. I hope they make sense.

    Evan’s last blog post..Self-Improvement for Dummies.

  14. Evan

    My response to the paper. Well, OK. So has Mr Robbins got around to writing some psychology? My interest is in psychotherapy – I think results matter.

    I prefer field-theory to constructivism. Constructivism seems like post-modern waffle and solipsism by another name.

    As to Heidegger. I always have the feeling that he is saying something simple and using the most obscure and difficult way to say it.

    It seems to me that there is a part of our experience which feels direct and immediate and that there is reflection on this. The trick is that this first kind of experience (which feels direct and immediate) is educatable. What an educated practitioner immediately perceives is quite different to the novice. To recogise this is a long way from validating the po-mo tosh about everything being equally valid (apart from that statement of course! This barely rises to the high school level of philosophy: all generalisations are wrong.).

    I am in full agreement that we are social and historical indviduals. I think the implications of this are clear. We can observe quite closely the effect of different kinds of groups on people with similar issues. We can observe the effect of different interventions in the history of these groups. With a set of close observations (say 100 groups – this is only ten people doing one group each a year for ten years) it would be possible to develop some very solidly grounded theory.

    Despite the appalling vocabulary in papers such as this it isn’t really that hard. Kuhn (bless his cotton socks) wrote very accessibly.

    I’m saying that I think it is time we got on with it.

    With regard to the science adequate to god. There is an embarassment of resources from naive testimony to the most dense and esoteric of abstractions.

    We could track the experience of those in different groups. Across different traditions. We could track the changes in individuals in groups and on a more solitary path. I don’t think it is hard to see possible approaches.

    Evan’s last blog post..Self-Improvement for Dummies.

  15. Jan Karlsbjerg

    @jan i agree with you – of course gods exist in the minds of those who believe in them.

    Hmm, I’m not sure how we got there, but suddenly agreement appeared: Religiosity is a mental problem affecting a (decreasing) part of the population.

    Jan Karlsbjerg’s last blog post..CSS Naked Day

  16. isabella mori

    @jan and what about the second part: “i suggest the weight of this statement depends on the degree to which we believe that this is true for everything else, i.e. the degree to which we believe in solipsism”

    i also agree that certain types of religiosity are a (mental? intellectual?) problem, just like certain types of political convictions are (mental? intellectual?) problems, in the sense that as soon as you touch the mindset with a bit of rational dialogue, the whole thing crumbles.

    but i wouldn’t say that’s always the case.

  17. isabella mori

    @evan “it seems to me that there is a part of our experience which feels direct and immediate and that there is reflection on this. the trick is that this first kind of experience (which feels direct and immediate) is educatable. what an educated practitioner immediately perceives is quite different to the novice.”

    that almost sounds like the conversation we’re having with nancy. insight is only (or more) possible when there has been immersion.

    would that translate into saying that people who have no exeperience with god have no basis on which to talk about it/her/him? what do you think, @jan?

    btw evan love your witty ditty: “all generalizations are wrong. “

  18. Jan Karlsbjerg

    @jan and what about the second part: “i suggest the weight of this statement depends on the degree to which we believe that this is true for everything else, i.e. the degree to which we believe in solipsism”

    Yeah, I didn’t know what that meant, so I just skipped that bit.

    Jan Karlsbjerg’s last blog post..CSS Naked Day

  19. isabella mori

    @jan thanks for calling me on my philosobabble.

    you said, “of course gods exist in the minds of those who believe in them.”

    i said “i suggest the weight of this statement depends on the degree to which we believe that this is true for everything else, i.e. the degree to which we believe in solipsism”

    what i meant how weighty/important this idea is depends on how much you believe that OTHER things also mostly reside in people’s heads.

    some things are obvious. e.g. i have no idea what the colour orange looks like to you – all we can do is agree to call a certain range of light wave the name “orange” but your experience of that colour is forever locked in your head.

    and then practically speaking, the vast majority of our experiences are locked up inside of us maybe not so much because we can’t explain them but simply because we don’t have the time to communicate them.

    but when you and i are at a bloggers meetup together and your pop and my whiskey sit on the same table, do we want to go so far as to say that the table, the whiskey and the pop only exist in our minds, too? that would be solipsism, and if you subscribed to it then your statement that god lives in the minds of those who believe in god would be uninteresting.

    which i suggest it is not.

  20. Acne

    I do not believe there needs to be a tangible connection with a Deity in order to be spiritual or to be closer. I believe we are all part of consciousness. We cannot possibly any further or closer to it than we currently are since it is all around (and part of)

    I believe people who allows themselves to tap into their real (nonlocal) spiritual self are already living in destiny.

  21. Brian

    Alright you ignorant atheists… if there is no god, then HOW DOES THE SUN KEEP ORBITING THE EARTH? BAM!

    Atheism is a religion, because it requires just as much FAITH to BELIEVE in it! You are FUNDAMENTALISTS!

    You can’t prove that there is no god, so why are you so sure that there isn’t one? That requires FAITH!

    If we came from Monkeys, then why are there still monkeys? My grandpa doesn’t look like a monkey!

    Evolution isn’t a fact, it’s only a theory! Why should I believe that theory instead of the one I was taught at church?!

    And on that note…

    Dunt dun duuh DAAAAHHHH!

    !!!!!!!!!MY ATHEIST STORE!!!!!!!!!

    Aristotle’s Muse

    This is my store. If you’re as irritated by this kind of mindless banter as I am, speak your mind. Maybe wearing an atheist T-shirt won’t change the world, but enough of them just might help.

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