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Finding Purpose in a Godless World

by Dr. Ralph Lewis
an interview with the author
Oct. 8, 2018

Forum: Visit the forum for this book
Book: Buy the book on Amazon

This interview may be posted on other web sites provided the interview is linked back to without the nofollow attribute.

Harry Marks Mon Oct 08, 2018

Not having finished yet, I feel squeamish about launching questions. However, I think this is a wonderful opportunity to get dialogue going, and so I just can't resist putting together some questions already. Hopefully we can add more as we finish the book.

Harry, a very special thanks to you in particular, for leading the discussion on and for the extraordinary amount of time and effort you devoted to this. I’m also extremely grateful for the detailed and thoughtful review you posted on Amazon.

1. Do you have any concerns about applying left-brain logos thinking to the question of thinking with reference to God, which is fairly obviously a right-brain mythos concept?

You and I probably agree that thinking about God ought to be understood as a right-brain concept, and I think that Karen Armstrong, whom I quoted in Chapter 10, would agree too. But I’m not sure that most theologians would agree. They are more likely to argue that belief in God is the position that any rational person ought to reach if that person follows all the theological-philosophical arguments to their logical conclusion. 

Part of the point of my book is to refute the assumption that belief in God is logical, and to demonstrate that the opposite is true, i.e. that it is primarily emotional-intuitive and that it is secondarily rationalized via motivated reasoning after having already first formed the beliefs and assumptions. I argued that newer paradigm-shifting insights from multiple scientific disciplines ranging from cosmology to psychology (many of which have not yet been assimilated by most people) pull the rug out from underneath the assumptions on which rational arguments for the existence of God are built. 

My point is that belief in God is emotional-intuitive, not logical, and that we should be deeply skeptical of our emotions and intuitions. Once we understand and accept that belief in God, and religion/spirituality in general, are really “right-brain” mythos concepts and not “left-brain” logos concepts, then we can begin to define a legitimate ongoing role for these in modern science-literate societies -- societies that are primarily governed by reason. I made small forays into suggesting such possible roles in Chapter 10, recognising at the same time that some people (who are by temperament and cognitive style less emotional-intuitive) don’t have these kinds of strong needs in the first place.

2. Can religious leaders, in your opinion, make progress in getting people to resist toxic thinking about religion, such as triumphalism relative to other worldviews, perception of supernatural intervention on behalf of believers, and emphasis on in-group belonging at the expense of common idealistic purpose?

A big part of their problem is not religious thinking per se, but human nature, which is highly tribal. This is a larger question about our species’ ability to over-ride our basic evolved instincts. As you know, religion, like nationalism, made possible the uniting of people into very much larger groups than had been possible under traditional tribalism, but it still did so by reinforcing between-group differences and by setting up competition between these larger coalitions. In Chapters 9 and 12 I drew on the work of Steve Pinker and others to demonstrate that human societies have in fact already made enormous progress expanding our notions of “within-group” far beyond religious and national groups. Among the many reasons for this progress is increasing global interdependence via trade – just a higher level of reciprocal self-interest. In this modern interconnected world, many religions and their leaders have become increasingly liberal and oriented toward interfaith dialogue and cooperation. One could probably argue that most religious communities in modern Western societies have already largely achieved the goal you’re asking about. 

3. Religion sometimes seems to function as an addiction, substituting for connection and community rather than fostering it. Do you have any suggestions for taming this tendency to pull believers away from others rather than toward them?

I think that certain individuals are more susceptible to such “addictions” and obsessions than others – the same kinds of personality factors are probably at play as in other kinds of addictions and obsessions. I’m not suggesting that all rigidly / fanatically religious people have diagnosable mental disorders, just that the same kinds of tendencies are at play -- such tendencies exist on a continuum, with formally diagnosable mental disorders representing one end of the continuum. Strategies for curbing such tendencies are complex and not completely effective, but basically involve trying to foster more flexible thinking and behaviour, less perfectionism, less reward-dependence, better social skills, more empathy, etc.

4. Personal behavioral failings by Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins have raised the question whether opposition to religion isn't an emotion-based position itself. Specifically, many believers seem to think that atheists reject God in order to avoid the feeling of intrusive observation of their sexuality. This is no doubt partly a result of the tension in their own lives when sexuality seemed to pull them in a direction contrary to the teachings of their religion. Do you think atheism may also be involved with less-than-rational reasons? 

I’m not in any position to comment on individuals’ personal lives or insinuations about them.

To the larger point about whether personal factors influence people’s motivations for the worldviews they adopt and whether scientists and others who consider themselves primarily motivated by reason might have been unconsciously biased by emotional factors: of course, that’s true of all people. But compared to the general public, scientists are far better trained in, and more likely to frequently succeed at, bypassing their personal motivations when appraising evidence. That’s the whole point of the scientific method – to bypass or control for motivated reasoning and personal bias. For example, that’s why pharmaceutical and medical researchers subject their study methods to such rigorous methodological scrutiny and the often brutal criticism of the peer review process – to prevent any personal emotional investment, career incentive or financial considerations from influencing the conclusions of their study of a particular treatment. So, speaking here just about leading scientists, not atheism among the general public, I think I would be on solid ground if I ventured the following generalization: The atheistic, naturalistic-materialist worldview that is held by the majority of leading scientists today (and yes, it is the majority, by a large and increasing margin) has for the most part been reached through the application of the same kind of evidence-based method of scientific skepticism that those scientists employ in their professional work. 

Regarding rejecting God in order to escape a feeling of intrusive observation of their sexuality, as a general point that’s kind of interesting: Having one’s sexuality disapproved of within religion is indeed a very common reason for people with homosexual orientation (and often their families) losing their faith and becoming alienated from religion. Indeed, religious institutions as a whole have lost a lot of public support and credibility over this issue in recent years, as public opinion in modern Western societies has shifted strongly in favour of accepting homosexuality as entirely normal and supporting gay rights and gay marriage. Some liberal religious groups have been very accepting and even activist on the gay rights front, but most have dragged their feet or actively opposed acceptance of homosexuality. 

If on the other hand the point about rejecting God in order to escape a feeling of intrusive observation of their sexuality refers to people avoiding scrutiny of their transgressions of sexual boundaries, quite the opposite may well be the case: people may actually seek the cover of a religious institution and a religious-moral reputation in order to conceal or to deny (publically and/or psychologically) their transgressions – as evidenced by the rampant sexual abuse scandals plaguing the Church, and the sexual scandals of religious right-wing politicians that have become so frequent as to constitute a comical stereotype. 

DWill Sat Oct 13, 2018 

1. Many, perhaps most, people won't reach full understanding of some advanced or specialized science concepts, despite the competent efforts of writers like yourself. It seems to then come down to competing authorities, science vs. revealed truth or intuition. Is the track record of science something you would hold out as enough to instill "faith" in science, concerning the very difficult stuff? 

Thank you for the compliment. 

Science and scientists can be faulted for many things. We are often reminded that science brought us advanced weaponry, and that it may yet destroy modern civilization through nuclear war. This is a problem of human nature, not science itself. Since Paleolithic times people have been inventing more lethal weapons to destroy their opponents. Science detractors also like to point out how many times science has “changed its mind” about important questions, with new evidence contradicting previously held truths or recommendations (e.g. health advice and treatments). But, once again, that’s the whole point of the scientific method: it’s self-correcting. It’s the most effective, most successful self-correcting method we have, and over time it has succeeded spectacularly. Scientists, while respecting and admiring knowledgeable and accomplished authorities, do not hold the wisdom of authority sacrosanct. Scientists are eager to, and are actively encouraged to, disprove established “wisdom.” Religion, in contrast, is a “wisdom tradition” and does hold ancient authority sacrosanct (liberal forms of religion are open to re-interpretation, but seldom open to complete rejection of foundational cherished beliefs and ancient scripture)

As I said in my book: According to religion, the best ideas were revealed in the past; according to science, the best ideas will be discovered in the future. 

It’s also part of our tribal human nature to instinctively respect and obey authority. And, of course, to trust our intuitions. Religion is natural, science is not. 

Nevertheless, if history is an indication, science has in fact been steadily gaining ascendancy over religion as a source of trusted information when it comes to the practical necessities of daily life (again, health is a good example – people in modern societies are more likely to follow scientific-medical advice than religious advice, in those cases where these contradict each other. 

I think where modern Western societies are presently at, is an in-between stage: people trust science for things like technology and health, but most still turn to religion for moral guidance and meaning-seeking. People still see science and religion as compatibly addressing these different needs. And they fear that adopting an entirely scientific worldview (which necessarily entails accepting that the universe has no inherent purpose and no higher power – at the very least no personal god), would lead to nihilism. My book is an attempt to dispel that nihilistic assumption.

2. A personal question if you don't mind. I wasn't sure whether, after your "conversion" to atheism, you remained a member of the conservative synagogue. Could you comment? 

We were actually members of an orthodox synagogue (orthodoxy is further to the “right” on the religious spectrum than is conservatism, in the Jewish context). We’ve not been members of that or any other synagogue for a number of years. But we’re still somewhat connected to that particular congregation and from time to time we do attend special celebratory or commemorative events there or milestone events of relatives and friends. Our membership there was, from the beginning, a contradictory and ambivalent relationship for us. Among other issues, the political ideology held by many in that congregation is far to the right of our own. But this particular synagogue also happens to be quite heterogeneous in terms of the differing conviction of its congregants’ religious beliefs (to their credit, the rabbinical leadership there are open to that diversity – actually, it’s part of their mission and strategy of “outreach,” hoping to bring more secular Jews into the fold). So there are also like-minded secular-minded individuals in the congregation. Also to their credit, the culture of the community and of its leadership is very caring and compassionate (at least within-group…). 

We sent our children to liberal private Jewish elementary schools, and then to public high schools. We wanted them to have a grounding in their Jewish heritage. At home we observed (and continue to observe, though a little more diluted now) the basic Jewish religious traditions such as a Sabbath dinner (I sing the elaborate blessings) and a full Passover Seder. I myself was the product of a Jewish education all the way to Grade 12, so I know all the rituals very well. But at the same time, from early on in their elementary schooling, we inculcated in our children the worldview that is reflected in my book. The religious traditions are for us just that – traditions, a connection to our cultural heritage, but without a smidgeon of supernatural belief. 

Actually, my desire to impart a more coherent, less contradictory worldview to our children was a big part of my motivation for the intellectual journey that led to this book, when I first embarked on this project more than a decade ago. I recognised that I had inconsistencies in my belief system and I wanted to clarify and crystalize it to make it more coherent, more solidly substantiated. I wanted to be able to share with our children something much clearer; something realistic but still hopefully optimistic and motivating.

3. Religion has its churches, synagogues, and mosques, which represent its institutional strength. Do you think that non-theistic liberal humanism needs additional structures (not necessarily physical) along those lines? 

I think different types of personalities have different needs in this regard. Many people do seem to seek something like that. Others are more independent and self-reliant / self-directed, while still others are simply introverted and private. For the most part and for most people, this is something that secular humanism has not yet been able to adequately develop, compared with what religion is able to provide. Probably most people do seek community. Some have found it in secular groups, many others are still looking…

4. How do you respond when people tell you that atheism and spirituality are incompatible? 

I agree.

Sam Harris would disagree. He takes the approach of trying to redefine spirituality. I personally don’t have a need to do so. I don’t regard spirituality as a virtuous trait to aspire toward. Of course I do understand that spirituality is a universal anthropological phenomenon, a by-product of our cognitive-emotional evolution. I think we can mature beyond it, as with other evolutionary by-products. But I may be wrong. Perhaps once again, it just comes down to the diversity of personality traits – different strokes for different folks…

5. How can we construct "inspiring narratives" that are consistent with natural law but act upon us in ways somewhat similar to those of mythos? 

In a way, that’s what I tried to do in my book.

It’s about the wonder of bottom-up emergence of all this amazing complexity in a universe that is fundamentally random and which began in an utterly simple state, possibly out of complete nothingness (or within an eternal multiverse). It’s about the marvel of how purpose, meaning and morality could have emerged and evolved spontaneously and unguided in a universe that fundamentally lacks those properties. And it’s about how human nature and civilization, despite all the flaws and horrors, has evolved and progressed historically toward a better and better society.

But I’m wary of straying too far into wishful thinking, and it’s very important to avoid any notion of inevitable progress. We must be very cognizant of the catastrophic derailments in recent history. And to be on our guard against the ongoing risk of such… 

Robert Tulip Fri Nov 02, 2018 

1. Do you see the more ethical path as working to reform religion to make it compatible with reason or opposing religion as a form of delusion? 

I would say working to reform religion to make it more compatible with reason. But for religion to really make itself compatible with reason would entail that it abandon all forms of supernaturalism. That’s a tall order. I don’t think religion without supernaturalism is a complete contradiction or impossibility. But I won’t argue too hard with anyone who does…

2. How do you respond to Chesterton's famous statement that when people stop believing in religion they start believing in anything rather than nothing? 

I think there’s a great deal of truth in that statement / prediction. It’s supported by many polls of people’s belief systems in this age of declining religious affiliation. Most of the “nones” (people who list “none” for their religious affiliation) are not atheists, and a large proportion of them subscribe to various forms of alternative spiritual beliefs, including many flaky forms of New Age Spirituality and pseudoscience. This probably results both from human nature and the failure of public education systems (to say nothing of the superficiality of the popular media). There is a need for much more rigorous scientific education and very much more teaching of critical thinking skills. Science is hard.

3. Do you see rituals for example in sport as a substitute for mass religion? 

Both of them meet our human need for tribal identity, affiliation, communal ritual and devotion to a cause / purpose that transcends our little individual lives -- to feel that we are a part of something larger. I’m not sure if it’s a substitute as much as just another devotional cause that meets some of the same / similar needs.

4. Do you find Jung's concept of a collective unconscious helpful for psychological understanding? 

No, I don’t.

Jung’s theories were too mystical and not evidence-based. Sure, there are common themes to our human mythologies (à la Joseph Campbell) but Jung seemed to imply that consciousness somehow pervades the universe and that we are connected in mysterious ways (e.g. his theories of synchronicity have been utterly debunked).

<End of Transcript>

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