July 01, 2003
Lookin' to fill that God-shaped hole

Still no word from Telford, but I got an email today that asked an interesting question:

I am very curious as to what drives people (not just you) to believe in any religion. I know some of the general answers like a reason for living, needing to believe in a higher power etc. but I would like to get a deeper, more intimate understanding of not only the search but the impetus to start looking at religions as well as a personal view of the path to an ultimate acceptance, assimilation, or rejection...

I seem to have so many believers reading me, I haven't really had to address that here. But it's a good question: if I don't have faith, why do I want it? Given my many arguments with Christianity, why do I bother?

The answer to that question is very long, but I'll try to summarize the main points here.

Reason for living is one of them, yeah. I've long been haunted by the feeling that I don't have a reason to exist. I know what a lot of atheists would say -- who cares? You're here, why ask why? But it's not just an abstract intellectual question to me. I think that, for various reasons that I won't go into here, I've always had to fight back the feeling that I'm some sort of mistake. I've never quite felt like I belonged in this world; where I do belong I have no idea, but I guess that's what I'm trying to figure out.

Related to that, I think, is the fact that I've always had this vaguely mystical streak. When I was a child I expect everybody regarded it as me being hypersensitive and overimaginative, and no doubt I was hypersensitive and overimaginative (and still am, really). But I've long lived with this strong sense of doubleness, that there's another reality beyond the quotidian material one in which I live. That other reality is not all nice; in fact, one thing that really separates me from my secular-humanist background is that I have such a strong sense of good and evil. I don't believe in putting people in baskets of good and evil, but I believe everyone has good and evil in them, and that there is a constant struggle between them. A while ago when writing to Telford, I described it like this:

I live in two realities: the external, ordinary modern
bourgeois one that you and I share, and the other one,
where there's always war. It makes the violence and
extremity of the Bible, of heaven and hell and the end
of the world, and of the suffering places in the world
today, seem a lot more real to me than it seems to be
to most other people, even those who theoretically
believe in it. It also makes the ordinary world seem a
lot less real, like a protected little bubble-city
that dark forces could at any moment invade.

That may sound like it's bordering on deranged, and maybe it is. Probably the main reason I majored in psychology was that I was trying to find an explanation for myself. Psychology is very interesting, but I feel like I've reached the limit of its ability to explain me.

It's not like I want to see the world like a medieval woodcut, with angels and devils doing battle for human souls. I think that it's more that I would like to integrate the two sides of myself, the rational and scientific one with the mystical and superstitious one. I feel that the latter may be as backwards and frightened as it is because in my background, it really has no place. It's something that should have been banished with modernity, but I can't banish it.

The third major factor behind this is relational. I think largely because of the above two factors, I've always had a hard time forming relationships. Especially romantic relationships seem to be nearly impossible. Feeling that I lack reason and purpose, sometimes I've made a man my purpose, which is bad for both of us. But I've been caught in a catch-22 of modern culture: you're not supposed to have a relationship until you've worked out your "issues," but how can you work out your issues all by yourself? One nice thing about most Christians, at least the ones I've known, is that they accept and, indeed, pretty much assume that you're "broken." There's this unfortunate attitude among a lot of other people that you're justified in avoiding people who have too many personal problems because they're going to drag you down. Christians are commanded not to avoid anybody in need.

Basically, I feel that I'm "wired for God" in some way, and that many of my troubles have come from this desire being misdirected, warped, or unsatisfied. I don't know if I'm wired for the Christian God; sometimes it seems like I am and sometimes not. But I do feel that I was not made for the materialist life that I have been expected to have. I've been fascinated by religion since I was a child, and have examined various different ones. I don't know where it's all going to end up. But one thing I do know: I go on because I can't not go on. There is no going back.

Posted by Camassia at July 01, 2003 05:34 PM | TrackBack

I remind "believers" that faith is not certainty: it is a choice of being, a persistance of hope in spite of the lack of empirical evidence for God. Those who say that they can see God in the workings of the world, who can quantify that being do not have faith. When they beat the Bibles to their breasts and say that this is the last word, they convey to me the impression that they are not trustworthy, that in the storm they will break and forget the necessity of good deeds and community. A real person of Faith -- if shown that God does not exist -- would continue to be a good person and to be at peace.

So often the decision to "believe" entails capitulating to a lie. People of Faith can adjust to the findings of Science: they don't need to prove that God exists. Their belief is founded on something far more powerful than knowing, it is founded on Hope and conviction that we can live better with each other.

Atheists and Fundamentalists are pretty much the same arrogant kind of animal: they claim that God can be determined. My friends who are truly faithful have much more in common with me, who knows he cannot prove or disprove the existence of God: yet I resolve to live as kindly as possible. So do they.

Posted by: Joel on July 1, 2003 05:50 PM

Careful, there, Joel. You have implied that "truly faithful" people are like you. That borders a *little* on the very arrogance you criticize. Remember that atheists and fundamentalists who behave arrogantly are probably strident because they have some fear or need that is driving them to cling to an absolute. Though their behavior may be distasteful, try not to listen to What they are saying as much as to Why they are saying it.

Posted by: Dash on July 1, 2003 07:57 PM

I never thought there was such a thing as an evangelical agnostic, but Joel is coming pretty close.:-)

Posted by: Camassia on July 1, 2003 08:21 PM


Hope is not a basis for belief. I hope I will win the lottery, but it would be foolish of me to believe that I will. You may hope that there is a God, but that is not a reason for believing that there is one.

You claim that atheists and fundamentalists are arrogant. But the opposite of atheism is not fundamentalism, it's theism. And what is arrogant is not mere belief, but certainty and fanaticism. A certainty that there is no God may be just as fanatical as a certainty that there is one, but I see the latter far, far more often than I see the former, and not just amoung those theists who would qualify as "fundamentalists." It is in the nature of religious belief to foster fanaticism. It is in the nature of skepticism and disbelief to suppress it.

Posted by: Don P on July 1, 2003 10:47 PM

Don P: I stand by what I said. Atheists are sure that there is no God and Fundamentalists are sure that there is one. Agnostics and a healthy-minded set of people of faith don't claim certainty.

You certainly haven't offered anything substantial to replace my formula of Hope. People live on hope every day -- it gets them up in the morning. It's a powerful force and it's probably what has kept you from pulling the trigger of a gun pressed to your skull. You only think you are free of it. What you have done is apply reason to the exercise of it.

Likewise, those who live by Faith have applied reason to their Hope. You don't see them playing the lottery and yet you use the example as if they do. It's downright unfair for you to invoke that and I dare say that's not the act of a thinker. I don't buy your belief that every person who lives by religion is a herd animal. I find it defining that you take offense at my declaration that I feel that on the God question I can't be certain and that I won't answer the question. I don't trust people who think they can. Sorry.

Dash: They are saying it because they want comfort. Which is something that Jesus warned against -- he made it clear that he wasn't bringing "peace" but "a sword". Anyone who becomes a Christian with the idea that all doubt ends just isn't getting it. People of Faith live with uncertainty and aren't threatened by it. Agnostics likewise get on not knowing, though they choose not to make religious observances.

I'm sorry that I don't buy your "no one is better than anyone else" philosophy: I do believe I know people of Faith and of Agnosticism who are of better character than George W. Bush, for example. Ultimately, I suspect such thinking is just an attempt by the one who advances it to avoid self-scrutiny.

If you hold that you can prove or disprove the existence of something that is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent by our limited senses, Dash, then you're living a lie. Yes, my words are strong. No, I am not sorry for them. This is the one certainty that I do entertain: that we are limited in what we can know regarding the question of ultimate cause. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling snake oil.

Arrogance is when you hold a belief for reasons of pure selfishness, when you cannot capitulate to things established as true because they interfere with what you want. The Scientist gives in to new findings all the time. The person of Faith may see the book of Genesis disproven by the evidence in the rocks, but likewise, s/he retains hope that God exists and continues to be a good person even though s/he knows that the question cannot be settled with the senses.

Yes, Camassia, I guess you could call me that. :) But I do have a good many friends with religious belief who aren't threatened by my point of view and I'm not threatened by them.

The question I put to people is this: If it could be proved that there was no God, would you still be a good person? Or to atheists, if it could be proved that there was a God, what would you change in your life?

The answers are telling. They show who you can and who you can't trust, who is an honest thinker and who is arrogant.

Posted by: Joel on July 2, 2003 02:34 AM


Don P: I stand by what I said. Atheists are sure that there is no God and Fundamentalists are sure that there is one.

This claim is nonsense. Atheism is non-theism. Atheism is disbelief in God or lack of belief in God. Atheism bears the same relation to theism as “atypical” does to “typical” or “amoral” does to “moral.” It does not imply certainty, let alone “fundamentalism.”

You certainly haven't offered anything substantial to replace my formula of Hope. People live on hope every day -- it gets them up in the morning. It's a powerful force and it's probably what has kept you from pulling the trigger of a gun pressed to your skull. You only think you are free of it.

Hope is an emotion that may motivate certain behavior. Hope is not a valid basis for belief. You may hope that you will win the lottery. That is not a valid reason to believe that you actually will win the lottery. You may hope that there is a God. That is not a valid reason to believe that there actually is a God. You may hope that you will continue to live in some form after mortal death. That is not a valid reason to believe that there actually is life after death. Passion and desire are not the same thing as truth. It may comfort you to believe that there is a God, but comfort does not imply truth. A comforting lie is still a lie.

Your comments above suggest that you are depressed, or that you have experienced severe depression during your life, and that you are projecting this condition on to other people. Most people don't need "hope" to get up in the morning or to stop themselves from committing suicide. It's not a struggle for them to do these things, as it seems to be for you. It just comes naturally to them.

Likewise, those who live by Faith have applied reason to their Hope. You don't see them playing the lottery and yet you use the example as if they do.

On the contrary, believing in God through hope or “faith” is just like believing that you will win the lottery through hope or faith. Both beliefs are unjustified. Faith is belief unsupported by evidence. If you had evidence, you wouldn’t need faith. And if you live your life as if faith is a sound basis for belief, you are likely to hurt yourself.

Posted by: Don P on July 2, 2003 11:04 AM

Don P., your definition of "atheism" is highly idiosyncratic. Other who call themselvews atheists would beg to differ with you. They state unequivocably that there is no God, no higher intelligence.

Your attempt to counter the commonly held definition becomes even more laughable when you realize that the root word of both atheism and theism means "god".

What you are talking about is akin to Buddhist cosmology. It is true that some call this "atheist", but I've known both Buddhists and atheists to take exception to the use of the word. Agnosticism comes much closer to the spirit of what Buddhists believem -- that we can't really know ultimate reality by using the senses. Classic Western atheists believe that they can.

Unrelated to Don P., but relevant to the conversation:

"The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came." - Umberto Eco

Posted by: Joel on July 2, 2003 04:33 PM

For the record, I've said about everything that I can say. Don and Dash have countered me with unsubstantiated "tain't so" and that kind of back and forth gets very boring very fast.

Posted by: Joel on July 2, 2003 04:34 PM


Don P., your definition of "atheism" is highly idiosyncratic. Other who call themselvews atheists would beg to differ with you. They state unequivocably that there is no God, no higher intelligence.

"My" definition is the dictionary one. As I said, atheism means non-theism. The "a-" prefix serves the same meaning as it does in words like "atypical" and "amoral." The word does not imply certainty that God does not exist, it connotes merely a disbelief or a lack of belief, as I already explained to you. And if every self-identified atheist you have met has told you that he is certain that a God does not exist, you need to meet more atheists. I have never met one who expressed any such certainty. In contrast, I have met numerous theists, of many different religious denominations and political leanings, who have expressed certainty that God does exist. As I said, atheism--and skepticism in general--is not conducive to fanaticism or certainty. Religion, on the other hand, is highly conducive to fanaticism and certainty.

Your attempt to counter the commonly held definition becomes even more laughable when you realize that the root word of both atheism and theism means "god".

I have no idea why you think the fact that the root of "theism" and "atheism" means God has anything to do with what you claim to be the "commonly held definition" of atheism (whatever that is).

What you are talking about is akin to Buddhist cosmology.

No, what I am talking about has nothing to do with "Buddhist cosmology." What I am talking about is lack of belief in God or disbelief in God. What you are talking about is certainty and fanaticism. They're not the same thing. Lack of belief is not certainty. Disbelief is not fanaticism. I don't know why you can't understand this.

Posted by: Don P on July 2, 2003 05:18 PM

FIRST AND FOREMOST : Thank you Camassia for addressing such an interesting question! I appreciate your willingness to open yourself up in public.

Secondly : I really can't see how the comment trail relates to the question or your answer. But I would be interested in seeing some follow-up by others on their thoughts. Maybe you could repost the question and ask for relevant comments?

And finally :

Joel said:

For the record, I've said about everything that I can say. Don and Dash have countered me with unsubstantiated "tain't so" and that kind of back and forth gets very boring very fast.
Joel, please don't take this as a personal attack but rather a simple observation. Your arguments are "unsubstantiated" as well. YOU may believe your points are true but you've backed them up with nothing more than your personal anecdotal evidence.

Here is some of my own anecdotal evidence : I am an atheist. I do not believe in God. I don't CLAIM to have evidence in either direction, I simply claim that "I PERSONALLY HAVE CHOSEN TO BELIEVE THERE IS NO GOD". I am a good and kindly person who would not be threatened if proof of God suddenly appeared. And in answer to your question - I wouldn't change my life if that proof were to surface because I believe I am good by any measure : I try to treat all people with respect, I try to forgive trespasses against me, I believe in the goodness of people (yes, some people do wrong things - are they "evil" or just sick? Who am I to judge...). Am I trustworthy? Most who know me do seem to find me so. At least I think they do ... don't they? Oh my, what if they don't... Why I'll ... I'll ... Uh, have to get back to you on that after I find a therapist ... What if everyone thinks I'm a ... Oh my...

Posted by: David on July 3, 2003 06:44 PM

To our host:

Thank you for this post; it hit the spot, so to speak.

To the commentors:

I don't know that I've come across a thread that so helpfully captured the tendency of people to define their own beliefs as true. For his part, Joel has defined certainty as the principal evil in the world (or at least a logical fallacy); therefore, the remaining choice is between agnosticism and "why not" theism. Unfortunately, if certainty is taken as the enemy, all searches are counterproductive.

Happily, though, I can take Joel's side in opposition to Don P:

"My" definition is the dictionary one. As I said, atheism means non-theism. The "a-" prefix serves the same meaning as it does in words like "atypical" and "amoral." The word does not imply certainty that God does not exist, it connotes merely a disbelief or a lack of belief, as I already explained to you.

Well, Merriam-Webster defines "atheism" thus: "a disbelief in the existence of deity b : the doctrine that there is no deity." Turning to "atheist," we get even more explicit: "one who denies the existence of God." "Doctrine" and "deny" certainly involve a degree of certainty. Moreover, "disbelief" is (m-w.com, again) "mental rejection of something as untrue," not a lack of belief in either way. To use your external linguistic example, "atypical" does not mean that the thing's typicality is indeterminate; it means that it is not typical. Perhaps you should meet some more atheists, yourself.

The idea that atheism and skepticism do not lead to fanaticism is also demonstrably false. This is obvious in the fact that you are obviously using "skepticism" in a fanatical sense. Fundamentalists would, to be sure, be very skeptical about additional claims being tacked on to the idea of Evolution. I, myself, am highly skeptical about claims that 23 dimensions obviate the need for God to explain the universe, while I've come across many an atheist who credulously welcomes such theories in order to maintain a belief in materialism.

Where there is belief, there is the potential for fanaticism, in some way defined. This is more or less Joel's position. Unfortunately, inasmuch as belief is inescapable, so is the danger of fanaticism in our human nature. A deliberate ambiguity is untenable; if humans tend toward anything it is certainty. At least one who is moving deliberately toward (or away from) a specific certainty can keep the potential fanatical pitfalls in mind.

Posted by: Justin Katz on July 6, 2003 09:35 PM


Ha, ha. I caught you being wrong, and you know it. (Ah, but are you certain of it?) You might find this definition helpful (m-w.com):

agnostic: a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and prob. unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god.

To be sure, there are both atheists and theists who are not so intransigent that they would reject decisive evidence that they are wrong, but this is a separate matter from whether they believe in God or not. These people, in your view, would be "uncertain," but that definition of "certainty" is just about useless, and it certainly isn't provably more common among either theists or atheists.

I'd say you're either defining yourself as something that you are not, or lying about what you believe. Of course, the benefits are obvious to enabling yourself to gain the rhetorical advantages of both atheism and agnosticism as convenient. Similarly, it is surely helpful to be able to define "skepticism" in the very specific sense of "skepticism about the supernatural" so as to garner the "reasonable" connotation that comes with the broader definition.

Posted by: Justin Katz on July 7, 2003 05:55 AM

Interesting question, and interesting answer. A similar but broader question would be why we find a "God shaped hole" in so many people and so many cultures.

I think one answer can be found in another of your comments. You write, on the issue of legislating sexual morality:

But I also think it's incumbent on those
defending marriage laws to explain why, and
to what extent, the state should legislate
sexual norms. Why should one thing be legal
and another not be? Where do we draw the line
between setting social standards and allowing
people their discretion?

The "God shaped hole" is in part the need to be able to answer such questions coherently. When building a bridge, an engineer can rely on the laws of physics to determine what the proper structure and materials are to construct a given bridge that will stand up to the expected stresses and traffic. Justice Kennedy was wrong in the Supreme Court's gay marriage decision; the state can (indeed must) legislate some morality to preserve itself. That morality must have some source, some outline that will provide the specifications for what should be prohibited, what should be tolerated, and what should be encouraged.

Religion can fill that role. Philosophies like Marxism and libertarianism have been tried, and failed. They fail because they provide no true underlying set of principles that answer the question "what should the law be?"

Marxism is concerned more with what has now come to be called "fairness" among classes, not with how people actually live. That is why truly socialist societies tend toward the hedonistic. We have only begun to see where this will lead in increasingly socialist Europe, but the decay of the true socialist countries of the USSR, China, Cambodia, Cuba and others who have traveled that path further is not promising.

Libertarianism seeks to simply avoid the underlying question of principle. It purportedly provides that the government may only legislate to prevent one individual from harming another. Libertarians believe that this is a simple precept, easy to follow. But they do not see that they have simply pushed the moral issues further down the analytical path, not done away with them.

First there is the question of the source of the right of the individual to be left alone in the first place. Second, how do you define an "individual"? Third, how do you define the type of "harm" the state may prohibit?

All three questions are moral in nature. If we live in the secular jungle of Rousseau and Nietzsche, why does an individual have any "rights" at all? Yet libertarians do not simply claim that government regulation of individual behavior is something they dislike, but that it is "wrong," a moral determination itself.

Next, are nine month old fetuses, Alzheimer inflicted aged people, the "mentally challenged," and Jews, all "individuals?" To those who would shout yes to some, there will be (and have been) others crying no just as loud to others.

Finally, what constitutes "harm?" Murder and rape all would agree, but is theft harm of an individual? Second hand smoke, indecency, profanity all "harm" others depending on how you define the word. And does harm include societal harm? I believe libertarians would mostly agree with quarantining an individual with SARS or Ebola, even though the patient might not infect anyone if left free, and would certainly not do be doing so intentionally if it were to happen. Does this means society may prevent "potential" harm because some such patients will spread the infection? Similarly, gay sex has had a strong correlation with the spread of AIDS, but no libertarian would favor outlawing gay sex. Since the two are different in degree only, what is the justification for choosing? Alllaws are in effect legislating moraliity of one kind or another.

At best, secular philosophies leave us with quantitative analysis of social issues (at worst with nihilism). But even then, without an underlying morality to fall back on, they simply delay answering the question of "what should the law be?"

Religion fills that "hole." It gives us the underlying principles of how to construct the law and society. It gives us a source of individual rights, a function for the law to fulfill, and a standard against which to judge whether a given law is just.

Religion, properly understood, is the physics of the intellectual/moral/spiritual world. Abandoning religion in building a society is like building bridges without reference to the laws of physics. Some may stay up, but only as a result of blind chance.

Posted by: Gary on July 7, 2003 10:54 AM

Very interesting discussion thread. Camassia, have you read Walker Percy before? He addresses precisely those impressions you articulate: the sense of a God-shaped hole, espoecially. He is also fascinated by psychology and comes to the very definite conclusion that psych can't explain him. You might try reading Lost in the Cosmos.

For the rest, the equation of certainty with fanaticism and of skepticism with broad-mindedness is very troubling, especially considering the certainty with which it was posited. I hope it has occurred to the skeptics to be skeptical of their own skepticism. Are there really compelling reasons not to trust a.) the deep and near-universal sense that there exists that God-shaped hole Camassia describes, which has seemed to so many philosophers, scientists, and theologians trhoughout time to be a persuasive sign of a human nature teleologically oriented toward union with God, and b.) our own experiences, both scientific and anecdotal, that both we and the cosmos seem to be rather well and interestingly ordered?

What are the grounds for your skepticism? Do you accept the cartesian turn dogmatically? Have you questioned the modern philosophical project and the enlightenment critiques of realist metaphysics and theology?

Skepticism may not be as free of assumptions, as neutral a worldview/standard operating procedure as you might think.

Posted by: Tom H on July 7, 2003 01:02 PM

If anyone's wondering what happened to Telford Work's huge comment in this thread, look here.

Posted by: Camassia on July 7, 2003 01:28 PM

Anyone who has read my blog and knows me as a person realizes that secular though I am, I am hardly quantitative by nature.

David: I find it highly amusing that you accuse me of relying only on my "personal experience" and then turn around and offer highly personal anecdotal evidence as your "proof" that God exists. When you can find a means of measuring God in a manner that can be replicated by anyone conducting the experiment, I will concede the certainty of God's existence. Such experiments have not been developed. I believe that given the nature of the thing we attempt to describe as "God", they cannot be.

Justin Katz: I have no problem with the broad use of certainty. I merely argue that based as it is upon evidence of the senses, it is limited in what it can be used to prove. I am certain that I am sitting in a chair, typing. Characters appear on the screen, I hear the tapping and crash of the keys, I feel them coming up through my fingers. What's more, it is possible to devise instruments which can measure the impact of my fingers on those keys, the intensity of the sound waves, etc. Certainties allow us to relay these words to you.

The classic response is, of course, to question whether we can truly know anything, whether we're just prisoners in a demon's machine as Descartes feared. Such sophistry may be entertaining for those who have never gotten past the questions of freshman level philosophy, but I sleep peacefully at night knowing that there are some things that I can be certain of and accept that there are things that I can never know as an answer. I am also comfortable with the fact that there exist in this world uncertainties which can be turned into certainties, theories that can have the kinks ironed out by the introduction of new evidence.

God is simply not one of those things that can be proved or disproved by the senses. Anyone who says that it can be is suspect in my book. If Christians and others are not supposed to lie, then there are many living in sin because they declare that they can prove or sense for certain the existence of this thing which we have defined as being well beyond our intelligence and our experience.

The God of the Bible is most unimpressive for me: if all He can do is run glosses that any reasonable person can produce without Him, then there's clear evidence that the Bible is a book written by men for the control of other human beings. It is, in places, one of the finest human creations, but the fact that it is a material object limits it. This does not change no matter how many times we replicate it.

But that doesn't end the question of whether or not there is a higher "intelligence" or "awareness". The Bible is evidence of human arrogance, of projecting ourselves on the universe and declaring ourselves the end of all things. We make God in our image and we even appoint ourselves masters of the world.

Tom: How nice of you to talk about "assumptions" that I supposedly have and not name them.

Was it just me or did no one answer my question: If it could be proved to you that there is no God, would you still be a good person?

Final thought: the one thing that unites those who I call people of faith and agnostics is humility. To the despair of many believers and atheists, we don't give it to worldly authorities, not even the Bible. We live in awe of the Universe, an existence so vast that not a single one of us can begin to comprehend but the tiniest part of it. When Jonathan Edwards characterized us as insects, he was getting close to the Truth of our place in the scheme of things and yet so infinitely far that I cannot describe the distance to you in measureable terms.

If that doesn't humble you, if you persist in trying to say that you can have final answers where the scope of the Universe is involved, then you must wear the crown of arrogance. As for me, I am always watching to see what unfolds and how our knowledge changes based on new discoveries and insights. I can only know a tiny part and I am satisfied with that. Regardless of how the question is answered, I will continue to struggle to be a good person among my peers.

Camassia: Thank you. Interesting discussion as always.

Posted by: Joel on July 8, 2003 12:58 AM

Regardless of how the question is answered or not answered, I should say. :)

Posted by: Joel on July 8, 2003 12:58 AM

I appreciate everyone's comments, but I suggest anyone who wishes to carry on the debate with Joel do it at his post on the subject. That's probably a more appropriate venue.

Posted by: Camassia on July 8, 2003 08:16 AM


I haven't read Walker Percy, but he sounds interesting from what you say. As to your two arguments, I never found the second very persuasive -- back on my Blogspot blog somewhere I had an argument against the anthropic principle, but I'm not going to dig it up now.

The first argument is more interesting. There certainly is reason to believe that many, many people besides me are "wired for God." Although that still leaves the question: could religious desire just be an adaptive mechanism with no basis in external reality? Some atheists argue that. There was a study a little while ago to the effect that people with faith are happier than those that aren't, which led to some discussion in the atheist parts of the blogosphere about whether it's better to be happy or to be right. I'm hoping I don't have to make that choice!

Posted by: Camassia on July 8, 2003 04:48 PM

Thank you Camassia for the redirect.

Just a note: if the concern is space, it's all the same server. :)

Posted by: Joel on July 9, 2003 02:11 PM

Camassia, I understand your quandary. I was there. I lost my faith and quit any association with it, except for appreciating some classical music, art, architechture, and going to Mass with family whenever I visited them, as a sentimental family-bonding thing. Otherwise I had really set everything aside to run my own life. I was in charge.

You know, it worked for a while. Close to a decade. But that sense of being a "stranger & sojourner" haunts. Moments of wonderment didn't lead me to reductionist explanations any more. Instead, why do I have this capacity for awe? Why won't science, politics, psychology, economics, philosophy, art, pleasure, etc., lead us to perfection? Or even answer all the questions? Why do I feel a debt of gratitude to Someone? What do I do with this instinct?

If you're still checking out the Christian God, just read the Gospels and focus on the person, teachings, and actions of Jesus. Ignore holy card images and Renaissance art and Bible beating fundamentalists and everything you have perceived as Christian, clear your mind, and start with Jesus. It doesn't even all make sense at first. Just read and reflect and let it percolate.

About the good person question, I am not sure if that has meaning without God. It would be the level of conformity to what is considered acceptable, changeable as that consensus, as binding as the lack of power you personally possess to be any different, and subject to swift change if you relocate to a different culture. Even if you use classical notions of "good" in philosophy, which idea of good? It is not merely a subject of personal conviction, either. Hitler was democratically elected, everything he did was legal, and he never violated his conscience. The Nuremburg trials were based not on positive law, but natural law, and it would be impossible today. We are on a power and social contract model.

Which leads me to know that there is something that transcends that model.

Hope this makes sense. I am home sick today and don't even know if I am thinking clearly.

Posted by: Elizabeth on July 10, 2003 09:22 AM

You do make sense, Elizabeth. And I have been trying to avoid the commercial images and other excrescences in favor of the source materials. I don't know if you were reading then, but earlier this year I blogged my way through Exodus and Acts. I had my issues with those, but at least I feel I'm grappling with the real thing and not somebody's else's distortion.

I also agree with you that the advice I've gotten from various quarters, to the effect that if you be a good person you'll be OK, is not quite adequate for me. As I tried to explain in my post, there's more to my search than ethics, though ethics are certainly part of it. I think it's unfortunate that a lot of people look on religion mainly in a disciplinarian way, as a set of do's and don'ts, and they reasonably wonder why they need God for that. I certainly know atheists who are good people, so obviously you don't. But one thing I've been learning is that a lot of Christians don't look at it that way, and what it is to them seems worth exploring.

Posted by: Camassia on July 10, 2003 10:08 AM
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