ATHEISTIC PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: The Price of Getting Spiritual with Facebook’s Naturalism Group

by Frank L. Jordan III

Obsevable Universe

Observable Universe illustration courtesy of Pablo Carlos Budassi

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I’ve learned a few things about Facebook’s Naturalism group since I posted an invitation there to visit this website where my introductory book of spiritual philosophy can be accessed (original post and discussion at https://www.facebook.com/groups).

The main thing I’ve discovered about that group is that it is almost completely dominated by metaphysical (non-spiritual) naturalists. This surprises me because in the About section for the group, websites for spiritual naturalists are prominently displayed (e.g., www.spiritualnaturalistsociety.orgwww.religiousnaturalism.org,  www.naturalism.org/spiritua.htm). And when visiting some of these sites, I found references to types of spirituality that closely resemble my own. From the Religious Naturalism website:

We are not enthusiastic about traditional god-concepts that see God as a paternalistic, absolutist being who pronounces scriptures that are to be taken literally. Nor are we enthusiastic about any concept that sees God as manipulating or temporarily suspending the laws of nature that have been discovered by scientific inquiry, that is, a God that performs miracles.

Some of us, however, maintain god-concepts that are more subtle than that. For example some find process theology’s understanding of God credible; some identify God with a generalized synonym for the sense of mystery most humans seem to feel; some view God as a metaphor for the healing and transforming force in the universe; at least one of our allies embraces a god-concept and then refuses to give it any concretized form; some of us are non-literal pantheists; and so on.

I can particularly identify with spiritual naturalists who embrace process theology because the philosophy of derivism that I’ve developed has some qualities in common with this worldview, and my book has been endorsed by a leading process theologian, Dr. John B. Cobb, Jr.

But the vocal members of the Naturalism group, with very few exceptions, would have none of this. I was accused of being a delusional supernaturalist (which I’m not) who appeals to the god-in-the-gaps fallacy (which I never did, i.e. – saying that I wouldn’t consider God as other than natural in the same way that I wouldn’t consider Dark Energy as other than natural is not trying to prove the existence of God via the existence of Dark Energy). That the majority of the comments were so inflammatory only points to the fact that many, if not most, of the group’s naturalists don’t even want to consider the concept that human spirituality can evolve alongside cultural and political evolution. As Carter Phipps wrote in EVOLUTIONARIES: Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea:

Once we truly begin to appreciate the evolutionary nature of even a universal phenomena like religion, we can begin to see how regrettable it is that so many scholars, especially scientists, tend to think about it as a single phenomena, as if most of human history can be broken down into a simple two-step affair. First there was religion, then science. First faith, then reason. First belief and superstition, then logic and rationality. First supernaturalism, then naturalism. In such formulations, all forms of religious expression get lumped into a broad category. That is a misleading way to think about religion, because important distinctions, such as those discussed above, will be overlooked and smudged together, leading to inaccurate conclusions about the whole subject.

Current debates about God often find themselves embroiled in these distortions. The New Atheists, despite their laudable championing of modernity’s gifts of science, reason, and rationality, tend to propagate this unfortunate confusion. While some may be quite clear about how they define religion, associating it narrowly and exclusively with a faith in a supernatural, mythic God (or gods)—a faith that is still the foundation of many of the belief systems active in the world today—many are less careful. They tend to see all mystically or spiritually inclined individuals as being afflicted with more benign strains of the same underlying disease. What they often fail to acknowledge is that not all religious expression is created equal. Even under the umbrella of any particular tradition, there are vastly different ways of thinking about God, each of which represents certain worldviews, perspectives, and stages of faith. And for those of us who enthusiastically embrace both the deepest intimations of the spiritual impulse and the tremendous virtues that flow from the project of science, the first order of business is to free the idea of spirit from being frozen in history and exclusively associated with the traditional, mythic, transcendent, otherworldly, anthropomorphic, dogmatic, old-man-in-the-sky-God belief system, by whatever name (pg. 268).

This exclusive approach to naturalism that Phipps describes will view any spirituality as part of the infection behind the disease that could ultimately cause terrorists to fly jet airliners into buildings. This approach can even produce an attitude of intolerance when considering the rights of others to run for political office. From the essay “Reality and Its Rivals: Putting Epistemology First” (www.naturalism.org):

More generally, any ideological bias against the necessity for empiricism, such as faith in God’s providence, should be seen as a disqualification for public office. Not that this recommendation will catch on any time soon in a society with “In God We Trust” on its currency and where paying lip service to religion is necessary for getting elected; but it’s something to shoot for.

Not exactly an attitude that would create an atmosphere friendly to someone who was a spiritual naturalist. Not even if that someone is Albert Einstein. After I quoted Einstein, I was rebuffed by a group member that “Einstein was not a naturalist”, even though Einstein’s opinion on free will is quoted under the Celebrities section of Naturalism.org. Why was this judgment made? It’s because Einstein does not fit into the atheistic, non-spiritual naturalist paradigm. It’s because Einstein, like Carl Sagan, said he believed in “Spinoza’s God”. But maybe the group member who made the comment realized his error, because the comment has since been removed from the discussion.

As soon as I mentioned that my worldview was not founded on belief alone, but on “several psychological/spiritual encounters with a presence I can only describe as Pure Love Personified”, I was promptly referred by a second group member to the Epistemology section of Naturalism.org where I would find reasons why “such encounters can’t be trusted as reliable representations of reality.” Although I did find the essay a refreshing visit to the stronghold of critical thinking, I do not hold that it means the death of spirituality once and for all. My opinion is largely influenced by the first of those psychological/spiritual encounters, described in the introduction of my book of philosophical verse essays entitled ~SOUNDINGS~: Exploring the Depths of God and the Universe:

But some of the realizations [in this book] came only after I had a profound conversion experience, a conversion that occurred during one of the worst crises of my life. At one point in our marriage, my previous wife and I were on the brink of a serious separation when I realized that I would never be the father that I had always wanted to be for our children—our daughter, then eight, and son, seven—and that that would hurt them. All of a sudden this incredible love swept over me, filling my heart with joy, and I knew it was from God. I knew it was God’s love because there was a presence and a power to it. This love knew me intimately, was closer to me than my very breath (pg. 1).

After describing this account, I was told by the first group member, “If you were born 1000 years ago, you would have felt it came from the Sun God.” Sound familiar? And from the second group member I heard, “For why you shouldn’t trust your own experience, uncorroborated by publicly available evidence (what science deals in), as a reliable guide to reality…” I was then referred  to the essay “Projecting God: The Psychology of Theological Justification”—also found in the Epistemology section of Naturalism.org. The gist of this essay is that if a person has to be receptive in order to detect spiritual phenomena, then the receptivity makes that detection unreliable because it violates the “insulation requirement”, which creates a bias within the observer. Of course this essay doesn’t address if a person has no receptivity to such phenomena and then experiences them anyway. But that doesn’t totally invalidate the original argument. I have my own reasons for thinking why receptivity to spiritual phenomena can be a genuine aid to experiencing them, but I’ll address those reasons at the conclusion of this essay.

I was also referred by a third group member to an article by a self-proclaimed skeptic who said that the latest advances in neuroscience showed that people tend to find patterns in phenomena and assign agency to them—specifically higher agency—because of the evolutionary advantages to such a practice. Although I can see the benefit of knowing about such correlations, I don’t think they explain the patterns and agency that humans assign to all unusual phenomena. I would like to illustrate this with an anecdote from my own personal history.

In the spring of 1995, I found I needed a crucial piece of information that only a very few people had. One of those people was a young military woman who was about to be stationed overseas. I didn’t know her address or phone number, or the addresses or phone numbers of any of the people who might be able to help me. One morning I went to work, promptly got “sick”, and left to keep an appointment with a lawyer. After the appointment, I went to a local mall to kill some time. I purchased some frozen lemonade and sat in a commons area beside a fountain. While sipping on the lemonade and watching the fountain, this feeling of deep peace came over me, much like the peace that I had felt as a result of the conversion experience I described above. Looking up, I saw your typical crowd of people coming and going. Through the crowd, coming straight at me, was the young military woman whom I had wanted to talk with. I was surprised by this, but not as shocked as I probably should have been. I got up and approached her. I didn’t want to overtly ask the woman for the information for fear of scaring her off, so I worked the conversation around to it. She told me what I needed to know, and we parted. After she returned from her assignment years later, I saw her again and said that back then she had told me something I really needed to hear. She didn’t pry, but said that she remembered that day and how it was a strange turn of events that had brought her to the mall. I didn’t ask for further details. We said our goodbyes and I never saw the young woman again.

What am I supposed to make of this event? Nobody knew I was in the mall. Nobody knew I was seeking out this information. Was it a total coincidence that this young woman just happened to show up in a place that I never frequented during a workday? Why did I have this feeling of peace right before she appeared out of the crowd and walked up to me? Am I not supposed to see any pattern here? Am I not supposed to see any higher agency, even if that agency could be a higher ability of my own mind? And if this event was somehow orchestrated by my own mind, what vehicle did my mind use to orchestrate it?

I do not believe it was a mere coincidence. I choose to believe that something much deeper and more powerful than I am was at work here. And I think that as long as these kinds of events continue to happen to people, there will always be room for spirituality in the world.

It is my philosophy and belief that it is beneficial for people to be open to spiritual phenomena because the physical realities of this universe derive from Pure Love Personified, or God, and thus share in God’s power and reality. As a result they have the ability to resist the fullness of Pure Love, setting up a dynamic called contention. For me, this contention explains everything I witness in nature. It explains why God appears absent a good deal of the time, and why Pure Love Personified is sometimes very present. It explains to me why the Divine must work through nature instead of to nature to exert its creative, healing power, and how God empowers the evolutionary process itself, while the specifics of that process (e.g., natural selection, random mutation) occur because of a species’ natural resistance to the fullness of God’s creative power.

And finally, this outlook reinforces why it is so beneficial for a person to “ascend to belief” in regard to the apprehension of the reality of God, because such an attitude helps one overcome this dynamic of contention. To put it simply, the entire philosophical and spiritual worldview of derivism explains for me the complex world that I experience and observe on a daily basis.

And I’m not going to argue about it. I’m not going to debate it. I’m just going to put it out there for anyone who wants to know about it. I refuse to do battle with individuals who have the attitude that any subjective experience is not worthy of the stamp of empirical science, as if humans haven’t psychologically or spiritually evolved in the past 10,000 years. It’s this kind of attitude that will automatically discount thousands of documented cases of persons who have had similar near-death experiences, or will invalidate thousands of testimonies from children who recall memories from the lifetimes of deceased strangers, simply because these are subjective experiences. Individuals with this pervasive skeptical mindset will disregard as scientific evidence such experiences solely because they are communicated through the human mind—the very pinnacle of human evolution—chiefly because of mistaken perceptions and superstitions from humanity’s past. This kind of prejudice deserves its own definition, one that I’m willing to offer here:

skeptic bias (noun)  the tendency to invalidate the subjective experience of another solely because that experience is communicated by a human being using a human mode of communication.

No, for all of the reasons I’ve given above I really don’t see much point in debating a spiritual philosophy with people who have already made up their minds not to value spiritual phenomena. Because there is value in such experiences. Even skeptic Sam Harris recognizes this to some degree when he responds to criticisms of his usage of spiritual language in his book Rational Mysticism on the website Council for Secular Humanism (www.secularhumanism.org):

The problem, however, is that there is a kernel of truth in the grandiosity and otherworldly language of religion. It really is possible to have one’s moment-to-moment perception of the world radically transfigured by “attentional” discipline. Such a transfiguration, being both rare and profoundly positive, may occasionally merit a little poetry.

In my particular case, it merited a whole book of poetry.

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