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Chapter 1 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis 
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 Chapter 1 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Chapter 1
Finding Purpose in a Godless World
by Ralph Lewis


Please discuss Chapter 1 of Finding Purpose in a Godless World by Ralph Lewis in this thread.



Thu Aug 02, 2018 12:00 am
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Post Re: Chapter 1 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Ralph Lewis has an interesting take on the question of God's existence. In many ways it resembles my own. His take on this is partly due to his work as a psychiatrist, running into many systemic syndromes of distorted perceptions and seeing how they sometimes give the person a chance to cope better with difficult emotional situations, but mostly they lead to foolish and even toxic behavior. But it was brought to a point of confronting the question by his wife's case of life-threatening breast cancer.

As a result of feeling he needed to decide, he moved from his former position of agnosticism to a definite atheist take on the question. However, like me he still believes there is much value in traditional religion, and that radically reinterpreted versions can avoid the intellectual errors he perceives as being behind religion, and at the root of much unhealthy thinking by people with a religious view of life.

I enjoyed his quick review of some of the sources of cognitive bias that lead to excess likelihood to perceive patterns or causes where there are none, and to excess likelihood to infer some agent with intention behind natural phenomena. And I want to start there with my response, except that I think I need to make a background point of my own.

There are important reasons why cognitive errors about divine entities get whole books written about them, and generate large and lively debates, while cognitive errors about, say, politics disappear into the emotional noise and cognitive errors about, say, medicine stay within small, eccentric circles. Cognitive errors about investment tend to get eliminated by markets, according to some research, except that obviously they don't since most professional investors are failures and bubbles continue to happen in life and experiments even when the people involved know they are taking a big risk.

So what's the big deal with erroneous inferences about supernatural creation and manipulation of reality? Well, in my view it is not like notions of the fairies at the end of the garden or like Gaia. That is, it is neither mainly superstition (or animist overperception of agents) or mainly eccentric theorizing that has gotten carried away with a good story. Rather it has taken on, a long, long time ago, a serious political role in people's relationship to their entire society (and now, world).

Lewis notes that the Twin Towers attacks brought the backlash of anti-theism, and of course this is part of the same story. As long as religion could be seen as a generally benevolent source of community cohesion, its eccentric notions could be treated like those of a friendly but goofy uncle. But if the uncle pulls out a sword and starts beheading people, he has to be dealt with.

Yet I find myself thinking that this role in "linking" (re-ligio) people is one of those crucial aspects which must be dealt with to realistically respond to the religious impulse. My constant tune seems to be that religion is really not mainly about the beliefs, and any explanation of a religion that just recounts the beliefs is missing the essence. "There is only one religion" some sage was quoted as saying recently "though it takes a hundred forms." And some of those forms, over the last century or so, have been without supernaturalism.

So this chapter, and maybe this book, have me thinking about what leads a set of beliefs to also be the language of common values. People don't really care what other people think about dance, or music, or rock-climbing. But they care what other people think about the meaning and purpose of life. They care about what sets the parameters of what will be valued, and respected, and honored. And evidently they care about how one faces cancer, or other drastic life situations.

So to me it sells the question short to think of it in terms of mistaken perceptions or interpretations of inconclusive evidence. Yes, sure, those can lead to emotionally inappropriate responses. But in a sense, responding to the community's sense of the source of meaning with "well, the evidence just doesn't support that interpretation," is more than a bit inappropriate. As someone recently said, "Would you rather be right or in relationship?" I mean really, if you are in a relationship with someone close to you, you don't go around correcting every inference or evaluation that you disagree with.

So here's my key observation, and my marker for discussing the book. I say you can correct the emotionally inappropriate responses from within the supernaturalist paradigm. Precisely because that paradigm evolved to the point where it was understood that common meaning about life's purpose was the only serious concern of the religious community, its appropriate or inappropriate versions can be discerned as well from inside the paradigm as from a rejectionist posture outside the paradigm. We shall see if I can make that stick.



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Post Re: Chapter 1 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Harry Marks wrote:
you can correct the emotionally inappropriate responses from within the supernaturalist paradigm.

Hi Harry, your comment here really lays down the gauntlet to atheism, in terms of whether its questions about factuality are meaningful. In principle, atheist physicalist materialism is a highly coherent evidence-based ontology. It has the ethical attraction of the value of only believing things that are true. And yet atheism fails to engage with the real reasons behind religion as a source of social cohesion and moral vision.

I think the problem here is that God is a way of naming the mystery of life, the psychological fact that as a society our knowledge of ultimate things is limited. Language about God presents a humble way to engage with a reality that transcends our knowledge, recognising that faith and prayer and worship accept we are all in this together.

My observation is that scientific philosophers tend to dismiss the epistemological problems that religious people see in reductionism. In principle, reducing the mystery to matter in motion makes perfect logical sense. The problem is that our mind has a free autonomy from any material causation that we can explain, and is experienced as a whole, as a unified spiritual consciousness. So saying the mind is just the brain is a trite way to disengage from culture.

There is a sound prophetic agenda in trying to reconcile culture and nature, but as you suggest, the supernaturalist paradigm has considerable resources for that work of reconciliation, and in fact the idea that culture and nature could be reconciled without respecting culture is a basic error.

Atheists cannot get the symbolic epistemology of religion, the idea that religious language lacks a precise objective referent, that speaking of God can be a way to express subjective emotional perception rather than a claim to revelation about objective entities. Now there is obviously a seductive tendency in religion to assert that symbolic language is actually objective, seen in literalism, but resistance to that tendency is not helped by the assertion that any language that is not objective is meaningless.

Taking the poetry and mythology out of culture by abandoning God presents a rather bleak and hopeless outlook, whereas believing a gracious loving creator has good wishes and intent for humanity can provide a capacity to engage with social transformation.


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Post Re: Chapter 1 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
This is a very meaty post, and I would say I agree with it thoroughly. I hope I can be forgiven for commenting only on some of the high points, and maybe if I get the time together I will come back and respond to some other material here.

Robert Tulip wrote:
In principle, atheist physicalist materialism is a highly coherent evidence-based ontology. It has the ethical attraction of the value of only believing things that are true. And yet atheism fails to engage with the real reasons behind religion as a source of social cohesion and moral vision.
I think people with a scientific turn of mind can be forgiven for saying, "One thing at a time," about the social cohesion part, and the moral vision that they see as, if anything, subverted by religion. They want to settle whether the literalist claims are true or not, and really I kind of went at it in that way myself. My science background is far better than my humanities background.

But in choosing to count as authoritative only those things that one can have a strong basis for believing are true, this materialist approach abstracts from the complex social processes of belonging, of trust, and of, as you said, social cohesion and moral vision. Abstracting that way is fine for settling the "belief" question, but it just walks away from the social problems currently solved by religion. Of which, I would argue, we are far more ignorant than we are about, say, the Solar System.

Robert Tulip wrote:
I think the problem here is that God is a way of naming the mystery of life, the psychological fact that as a society our knowledge of ultimate things is limited. Language about God presents a humble way to engage with a reality that transcends our knowledge, recognising that faith and prayer and worship accept we are all in this together.
You may have noticed that there is very little humility about scientific engagement with religion. In fact, Stephen Jay Gould's argument for humility on the subject has drawn incredible amounts of criticism, despite being, to my mind at least, completely sound and still standing up very well after the critics have had their say.

Of course, religion could use some humility as well. When talking about such matters as "the mystery of life" and "knowledge of ultimate things" and "reality that transcends our knowledge" we religionists would do well to think of these as "fingers pointing at the moon" and not the moon itself. We hope that others will grasp the reasons why these vague concepts do a good job for us of structuring our thinking about experience, but to claim, as many do, that we know important answers about these matters is just kind of pathetic.

By the way I am just filled with awe and gratitude for the word "accept" in your paragraph. We don't prove, or enforce, or gloat about, or use as a club, the fact that we are all in this together. We also don't try to abstract from it, which is (as Lewis might say) a kind of denial. All of us face the life and death issues. All of us engage meaning (an intersubjective issue) from the context of individual consciousness. It is one of the together-est things about life.

Robert Tulip wrote:
My observation is that scientific philosophers tend to dismiss the epistemological problems that religious people see in reductionism. In principle, reducing the mystery to matter in motion makes perfect logical sense. The problem is that our mind has a free autonomy from any material causation that we can explain, and is experienced as a whole, as a unified spiritual consciousness. So saying the mind is just the brain is a trite way to disengage from culture.
Well, maybe I disagree with you a little about this. As long as science humbly argues that we have no evidence of anything beyond the brain creating consciousness, I think it is on pretty good grounds. But to me that is like saying, "all biology is chemistry" or "all chemistry is physics." It is true in that we never see a contradiction to it, so theories that claim otherwise are pretty sure to be incorrect, but it sidesteps the important questions of biology that need their own principles (beyond the usual chemical principles) to address.

Robert Tulip wrote:
There is a sound prophetic agenda in trying to reconcile culture and nature, but as you suggest, the supernaturalist paradigm has considerable resources for that work of reconciliation, and in fact the idea that culture and nature could be reconciled without respecting culture is a basic error.
This gets into really deep water, and I don't feel competent, or at least ready (when did I ever let lack of competence stop me?) to comment on. There is something deep in the idea that the cultural representation of nature is itself an important matter to be considered.

In Washington I observed that each major agency had its counterpart to the other agencies, whose job it was to represent the other agencies to the top staff of the agency that employed them. So State had an internal "economics department" which mainly reported on the issues of Treasury (and built a sort of internal representation of Treasury), and Treasury had a "foreign issues" department which mainly reported on issues of State (and built an internal model of State). The thing to know about these departments was that they had a slightly different take on a given set of issues, depending on the priorities of their agency.

Cultural representation of nature is something like that. It is not entirely faithful to nature, in some autistic, idiot savant sense, but selects the important parts to focus on. Important to whom? Well, for religion, importance to the community.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Atheists cannot get the symbolic epistemology of religion, the idea that religious language lacks a precise objective referent, that speaking of God can be a way to express subjective emotional perception rather than a claim to revelation about objective entities. Now there is obviously a seductive tendency in religion to assert that symbolic language is actually objective, seen in literalism, but resistance to that tendency is not helped by the assertion that any language that is not objective is meaningless.
I hope my preceding responses will help to understand why I give an emphatic "Yes!" to this way of thinking about it.



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Post Re: Chapter 1 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Both of you seem to be saying that the supernatural in itself is not to be thought of as a problem of religion. I agree, because for one thing, thinking otherwise implies a broad judgmentalism of a great many belief systems, not just Christianity. The charge that there is inherent harm in believing things that science can't justify I don't think is valid. Nor can charging that one particular form of supernatural belief is inherently harmful be really anything other than personal animus toward the belief. Non-interference or respect is called for except in cases where the beliefs become "imperialistic--"when they would demand to intrude upon the lives of those outside the group--or when they cause clear harm even to those within the group. An example of the latter is parents refusing to get urgent medical care for children, because prayer is the only medicine allowed.



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Post Re: Chapter 1 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
DWill wrote:
Both of you seem to be saying that the supernatural in itself is not to be thought of as a problem of religion.
I might phrase it differently. The supernatural both misrepresents the evidence (that seems to be the theme of our author, as well as of Michael Shermer) and represents larger concerns. It is a problem, but when you say "in itself" you seem to be bringing in what I would call the question of "inherency": must it be a problem? Is it automatically a problem?

My answer is that if you consider misrepresenting the evidence to be a problem, then it is, but if you are looking for other problems to be the result of it, then the inherency falls down. The way I have chosen to represent this is to propose that even for those who believe the supernatural interpretation of things, the concerns that religion has raised to itself internally are enough to block the nasty results of religion. Of course these concerns don't always or automatically block the toxic parts, but they can, and so there is a role for internal reform that is just as vital as the role of external criticism. And maybe more likely to succeed.

DWill wrote:
I agree, because for one thing, thinking otherwise implies a broad judgmentalism of a great many belief systems, not just Christianity. The charge that there is inherent harm in believing things that science can't justify I don't think is valid.
Your generosity of spirit is a worthy virtue. I think the nature of the argument is something like: because belief in witchcraft always seems to lead to burning witches, we should banish the belief. So the real question is in that "always" ("usually" would do just as well, but "sometimes" is probably not much of an indictment). We have to ask ourselves if there is something about the self-centeredness, credulity and thirst for community affirmation of the supernaturalist pattern which makes anti-social results likely.

DWill wrote:
Non-interference or respect is called for except in cases where the beliefs become "imperialistic--"when they would demand to intrude upon the lives of those outside the group--or when they cause clear harm even to those within the group. An example of the latter is parents refusing to get urgent medical care for children, because prayer is the only medicine allowed.
A crucial part of my argument is going to be that both Judaism and Christianity have, in some form or other, rejected this imperialism in theory. Whether that theory-based rejection is sufficiently persuasive remains to be seen.

The Christian Science example is interesting. Apparently Mary Baker Eddy had some very bad experiences with doctors, which is not too shocking since much of modern medicine was unavailable at that point. They had Pasteur's germs and Florence Nightingale's record-keeping and Lister's antiseptic surgery, but really faced tough limits on their ability to accomplish anything. So when she did better with prayer, and made a whole philosophy about it, she was actually being reasonable -- given the constraints of the time. The problem is that the philosophy claims too much, and people who don't process the difference between her world and ours are easily led to make serious misjudgments.

That failure to take into account changing science is a recurring problem for religion. It is one that I think Progressive Christianity has dealt with effectively, but not perfectly.



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Post Re: Chapter 1 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
DWill wrote:
Both of you seem to be saying that the supernatural in itself is not to be thought of as a problem of religion.
To add to Harry’s reply, I also would not agree with that formulation. The supernatural in itself is a major problem of religion in numerous ways, although I can understand why DWill would come to that interpretation.

There is no good evidence or even coherent definition for the supernatural. I say that because even if there were entities giving rise to the experience of ghosts, a claim that has not been supported by any clear evidence to my knowledge, that would mean, in terms of coherent definition, that our limited understanding of nature was deficient, and in fact nature extends to include ectoplasmic energy forms. The distinction between the natural and the supernatural breaks down as soon as you analyse it closely.

As for God, I think it is important to respect supernatural language and psychology as a way of describing an unknown mystery giving meaning and purpose to life, but the claim that God is a supernatural entity similarly breaks down against the rival hypothesis that myths about God are psychological projections of the mind rather than descriptions of a personal conscious being with a sense of purpose. Accepting that God is imaginary is a way to pull back from how religion butts up against science, enabling dialogue and mutual respect.
DWill wrote:
I agree, because for one thing, thinking otherwise implies a broad judgmentalism of a great many belief systems, not just Christianity.
Perhaps broad judgementalism of belief systems will prove essential to cultural evolution? The myths of religion evolved within isolated flat earth cosmologies. They gave enduring and valuable meaning to those ancient cultures, a meaning which can be retained while modern people recognise that the likelihood that religious belief systems are literally true is vanishingly small.

Perhaps for religion to engage with the modern secular world it needs to find more humility about the literal facticity of its traditions. That includes such major questions as the actual existence of Jesus Christ. I have yet to see any prominent Christians accept that the complete invention of Jesus is even equally as probable as his existence. Such a halfway step towards mythicism, agreeing that Jesus might not have existed, confronts the central myth of Christianity, that all the miracles of the Bible happened exactly as described, a view that is scientifically untenable. [quote=“DWill”] The charge that there is inherent harm in believing things that science can't justify I don't think is valid.[/quote]That is a great question. In the recent thread on Answer to Job, my last post was a sermon I gave recently at church about the Virgin Mary, addressing precisely this problem, noting that even though the Virgin Mary is utterly improbable and a purely mythological figure, she represents ideals which have social utility, and which gain social purchase from the belief that Jesus was born of a virgin.

Some myths can have good impact. The belief that Jesus came from Nazareth has no scientific evidence to support it, and much to the contrary, and yet it enables the mythological framework of Christianity with all the moral benefits and harms that flow from that. Just because a belief has no evidence to justify it does not make it bad. However, I do think that some beliefs are inherently harmful, notably how Young Earth Creationism encourages hostility to science and evidence and logic, each of which have high moral value.

Sometimes a belief can be hallowed by tradition, and if pressed those who express support for it will admit it has no evidence but they choose to believe it anyway. The dilemma here is that a true belief has more power than a false one, so there is a tendency to claim there is evidence where there is none, as with Jesus.[quote=“DWill”] Nor can charging that one particular form of supernatural belief is inherently harmful be really anything other than personal animus toward the belief.[/quote]That is unfair. ‘Personal animus’ means emotional hostility, whereas often the charge that a belief is harmful can involve much more than dislike, as beliefs often lead to immoral actions. [quote=“DWill”] Non-interference or respect is called for except in cases where the beliefs become "imperialistic--"when they would demand to intrude upon the lives of those outside the group--or when they cause clear harm even to those within the group.[/quote]Working out what all those boundaries are can be a challenge. And in some cases we accept imperialistic religion, as in how the Jewish injunctions against murder and theft are viewed as universal moral values. [quote=“DWill”] An example of the latter is parents refusing to get urgent medical care for children, because prayer is the only medicine allowed.[/quote]And that is a perfect example of a belief where the charge that it causes harm is not just personal animus. The animus here arises from a much broader social concept of human rights, not just individual whim.


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Post Re: Chapter 1 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Robert Tulip wrote:
The supernatural in itself is a major problem of religion in numerous ways, although I can understand why DWill would come to that interpretation. There is no good evidence or even coherent definition for the supernatural. I say that because even if there were entities giving rise to the experience of ghosts, a claim that has not been supported by any clear evidence to my knowledge, that would mean, in terms of coherent definition, that our limited understanding of nature was deficient, and in fact nature extends to include ectoplasmic energy forms. The distinction between the natural and the supernatural breaks down as soon as you analyse it closely.

That's an interesting way to view the matter. I have seen it before, but I don't keep track of the pedagogical landmarks very well. Of course it raises the obvious question why people wish to see "uncanny" events as supernatural. Once this applied to volcano eruptions, earthquakes and comets, and it still applies to ghostly apparitions and weeping statues. Something totally out of the ordinary, something "inexplicable", gets put in another category whether scientists like it or not.

The supernatural interpretation is partly explained as "Bad science of the gaps" for sure, but it seems to me there is also a preference for something symbolizing an alternate, differently functioning stratum of the cosmos.

There is an obvious distinction to be drawn between people who believe in Platonic "ultimate" forms of the supernatural, e.g. "the Creator", and those who just perceive invisible agents arranging everything around them. Since Lewis' book is about motivations for beliefs, I would like to observe that the two motivations can be very different. In the first case it seems to be primarily cognitive, of the "System 2" reflective type explained by Daniel Kahneman, while in the second case it is primarily perceptual, a kind of "System 1" snap judgment. The two patterns overlap a lot, especially in practice, but when you talk to people about their beliefs you can usually see which of the two dominates their religion (which may just be a Myers-Briggs manifestation, of course).

I would like to also introduce a distinction that came to the fore in discussing Yuval Noah Harari's work. "Imaginary structures" start out as description or justification for actual arrangements that are functional (at least for the powerful), but may be perpetuated out of erroneous confirmation bias or other rather separate processes.

The perceptions that originate a supernatural interpretation may be very different from the experiences which perpetuate the interpretation. I would argue that because religion aims to guide values and moral choices, it is perpetuated by, among other things, the confirmation bias that goes with a comeuppance for arrogant evildoers. But that experience of karmic schadenfreude probably has little to do with the reflective process which originally saw an orderly and just society as a godly mandate.

I will be watching for differences as we go, between perceptual and reflective interpretations behind the supernatural views, and between originative and perpetuating interpretations.
Robert Tulip wrote:
As for God, I think it is important to respect supernatural language and psychology as a way of describing an unknown mystery giving meaning and purpose to life, but the claim that God is a supernatural entity similarly breaks down against the rival hypothesis that myths about God are psychological projections of the mind rather than descriptions of a personal conscious being with a sense of purpose. Accepting that God is imaginary is a way to pull back from how religion butts up against science, enabling dialogue and mutual respect.
I have to admit that the "fuzzy referent" problem, one might say, is a difficulty for Progressive Christianity. A minister may have in mind a very different phenomenon when referring to the "real presence" of Christ in the Eucharist from what a layperson is thinking of.

Everybody is aware (in a Progressive Christian context) that there is imaginative construction at work. Good leadership will help people learn how to work with "broken myth", so that they learn to respond to the luster and excitement created for values, while holding only loosely to the fuzzy interpretations that seem to justify these qualities. That way they don't have to reject other people's interpretive structure.

But of course people have to answer questions from children, and often from themselves, about how it "really works." The vocabulary to make sense of symbolic structures is a university level vocabulary, involving highly abstract concepts. It can be very difficult to shake the sense that there must be a description, a conceptualization that works like physics or biology, telling us just what rules this alternate reality follows.



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Post Re: Chapter 1 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Please excuse me for not replying specifically enough to both of your responses. I'm not reading this book, so I probably should keep mum anyway. I would say three things here. First, as Robert observed, the supernatural is a vague concept. What are we talking about? The supernatural ranges from the mildly woo-woo through the explicitly magical. Even transcendentalist meditations on nature have something about them that is not naturalistic. Could we really critique naturalism with any success? Probably not. Second, the argument should include the possibility that belief in the supernatural (again, whatever that might mean) is not just unharmful but a positive good, at least for individuals. Robert allows for psychological benefit but appears to think that the dangers of denying rational evidence outweigh such benefits. I would ask whether a supernatural-based belief system might not provide a base of stability that could actually promote solid rationality toward daily reality--with the added feature of superb emotional intelligence. When you look at the thinking of a Christian like E.J. Dionne you don't note any liabilities stemming from his belief that Jesus was raised from the dead. Third, my argument in partial favor of the supernatural is really one based on perspective. Looking out at the trends I find disturbing, I don't see links to belief in the supernatural, so I'm inclined to say "no harm, no foul, just please stay in your lane." What human being needs the supernatural in order to deny the facts and substitute "his own facts"? Certainly not our president. In what regard is intense callousness such as orphaning small children due to harboring magical beliefs?

This topic has a different look according to whether we're talking about reform within religion or supernatural beliefs affecting the larger society. My focus is on the second of these.



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Post Re: Chapter 1 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Robert wrote:
There is no good evidence or even coherent definition for the supernatural. I say that because even if there were entities giving rise to the experience of ghosts, a claim that has not been supported by any clear evidence to my knowledge, that would mean, in terms of coherent definition, that our limited understanding of nature was deficient, and in fact nature extends to include ectoplasmic energy forms. The distinction between the natural and the supernatural breaks down as soon as you analyse it closely.


Sort of redundant in phrasing, but I understand the supernatural as those things which we don't understand how they could possibly be natural. It's hidden beyond a veil of ignorance whether some supernatural claims might be nature that isn't understood, or are merely human fabrication. I think most is human fabrication, but I also acknowledge that there will be things we now consider supernatural that will someday be illuminated as natural. I think you could plot all various claims on a spectrum from most certainly fabricated, to possibly natural but currently not understood.


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Post Re: Chapter 1 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
DWill wrote:
Please excuse me for not replying specifically enough to both of your responses.
Please don't worry about that. "What is the right question?" discussion is often the part I consider most relevant.
DWill wrote:
I'm not reading this book, so I probably should keep mum anyway.
Um, comments can be interesting grist for the comment mill. I am a little disappointed that you won't be reading it, because the book is from a psychiatric perspective and I understood you to be in the therapeutic line of work, of some sort. Presumably you would share many of the author's views and priorities. On the other hand, I can't say I have learned a lot about psychology in the first two chapters, and I am a rank amateur. The discussion is pretty much at a layman's level.

DWill wrote:
I would say three things here. First, as Robert observed, the supernatural is a vague concept. What are we talking about? The supernatural ranges from the mildly woo-woo through the explicitly magical.
It is undoubtedly too vague to pin down philosophically, but in practice it means God overrides the laws of nature for some specific purpose, usually as a "sign."

I recently accosted someone on the Patheos Evangelical forum for saying it was easy to tell that gay sex is sinful because it is in the Bible. I snarked a bit that "those poor disciples had to get by without scripture, and only had the Holy Spirit to guide them." The answer came back promptly: "Tell us about the signs and wonders you performed last week." The Bible represents supernatural authority to this person (and a lot of others, as well) as evidenced by, e.g. making prophetic predictions that subsequently came true. That authority is equivalent to what the disciples supposedly had, as attested by the healings and even resurrections they performed.

This is, in my view (see the ex-Christian.net thread for more) one of the big issues for Progressives to engage with Evangelicals about. The basic issue (expressed within the religious worldview) is that "forced obedience" is not God's wish for us. To have a real change of heart, we have to be thinking through values for ourselves, not following some set of rules. So the nature of God's authority is not in threats against our eternal soul in the afterlife, or for that matter in thunderbolts hurled at heretics. Which leads to the question what is the source of God's authority.

DWill wrote:
Second, the argument should include the possibility that belief in the supernatural (again, whatever that might mean) is not just unharmful but a positive good, at least for individuals. Robert allows for psychological benefit but appears to think that the dangers of denying rational evidence outweigh such benefits. I would ask whether a supernatural-based belief system might not provide a base of stability that could actually promote solid rationality toward daily reality--with the added feature of superb emotional intelligence.
Yes, I think that's what I am trying to work on, in looking at this book. Presumably there is some secular version that will give the same stability, personal rationality and possible emotional intelligence. In which case I am happy to recommend to others that they gather to foster such a version.

But I wonder if there is any possible system of thought which does these things without some version of a concept of the sacred: that some questions, some milestones in our lives, and some expressions of our deep priorities, have a quality of shedding light on the rest of our lives by virtue of their special significance.

DWill wrote:
Looking out at the trends I find disturbing, I don't see links to belief in the supernatural,
Well, except that many of these are reactions against 911 and the threat of fundamentalist terrorism. In truth, the divisiveness that characterizes 45's popularity (and that of Fox News) is standard stuff of narcissism (NPD) and one has to at least ask whether this argument for supernatural authority isn't a species of NPD.

DWill wrote:
This topic has a different look according to whether we're talking about reform within religion or supernatural beliefs affecting the larger society. My focus is on the second of these.

Hmm. Well, since I think that sound religion is about meaning structures and therefore cannot avoid issues of how to regard the larger society, I have trouble separating the two topics you set out here. Maybe you will have more to say about that as things go on.



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Post Re: Chapter 1 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
I became interested in the book when I realized that Lewis is a psychiatrist. Though I don't have Lewis's training or experience, I have some acquaintance with the topics he covers in Part 1 of the book. His contribution to the ongoing discussion of atheism as a viable worldview could be welcome since his experience is more ground-level than that of other writers who have handled the subject. Harry and Robert have already commented, and they don't need to feel obligated to retread this ground. I won't feel ignored.

As I expected, he is tolerant of and compassionate toward his patients for whom religion is important.
Quote:
I have no interest or business in challenging my patients' religious beliefs if these are not delusional. On the contrary, if a patient finds solace and strength through religion, I support and encourage this, despite being a nonbeliever myself. My goal is primarily to help people feel better, function better, and see their lives as meaningful and mattering. If they are believers or even semi-believers, I often encourage them to attend church, synagogue, mosque, or other houses of worship, with the hope of reconnecting them with community supports and sources of meaning

Anyone in a helping role would feel the same, I think. The doctor or other counselor should realize that she has very limited ability to change things for the person. She needs to leverage other resources for him or her. But note Lewis's qualifier, "if these are not delusional." That is the rub so frequently encountered in mental health. I would go a bit further than Lewis and say, "so long as religiosity is kept in bounds." There does not need to be specific delusions to upset the balance of the person's life. We're dealing here with overvalued ideas more than delusions. It seems that the mentally healthy are more able to dodge the potential upsetting effects of religious devotion. That is, they can say all the right things that mark them as strong believers, but they carry on, blending rather seamlessly with the "secular" world. For those whose minds are vulnerable to illness, it may not be this way. Religion can be a strong siren call, especially for people inclined to periods of mania. It doesn't help that fanaticism is seemingly supported in the Bible.

I knew a man very devoted to the Greek Orthodox Church. By all signs, the support he received there was significant in his recovery from Bipolar II illness. This person was very into the theology. His own priest would monitor him for signs that he was getting too serious about all that stuff. The idea was to leave it behind, in a sense, once the period of worship was over. I knew two other men who lived together. In their case, it was the ranting of Harold Camping that got them spinning into intense anxiety. One of them attended a fundamentalist Lutheran Church where Camping's end-of-the-world forecast was mentioned. I spoke to the pastor, who said that, yes, he had mentioned Camping, but not favorably. That didn't matter to Joe, who attended only to the rumour of apocalypse.

The bulk of the chapter is a solid summary of the rationales and benefits of religious beliefs. There has been talk of a "God gene," but Lewis makes it clear that we're dealing with a complex of cognitive attributes that incline us to believe that there are patterns, agency, and purpose in the universe. In many instances, we can make ourselves understand that we have imposed these qualities on the universe. And when we've understood that, Lewis tells us, we do not need to fear falling prey to nihilism, because purpose is no less real for existing within us rather than out there. Lewis himself was brought to a rationalist, atheistic view during hard times for his wife's health. He doesn't seem out to change how others respond to the world, but to offer a guide to people who have taken the same journey as he has. Though he may not say this, I sense that he also thinks his current view is a sign of the progress of humanity.



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Post Re: Chapter 1 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Just FYI I'm extending this book discussion to include the month of November.

As of right now I only see 2 book reviews so far for Finding Purpose in a Godless World on Amazon.com. It would be nice if some of our members could add reviews to Amazon. And if you do feel free to mention BookTalk.org. This could bring in some new faces.



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