Sunday, July 25, 2010

Transcendent B.S.

This is a response to Reza Aslan’s OpEd at I assume this ( is the same Reza Aslan. I like his name so much I had assumed it was a pseudonym. I also like his writing style. I imagine it’s very influential to anyone like-minded or uninformed. But while he brings up some good points he manages to suggest that the subjective “evidence” for spirituality, transcendence and the supernatural are equal to or greater than the objective and subjective evidence against them. So I thought I’d point out a few points he managed to get…

There are "new atheists" who have never been burdened by unqualified subjective supernatural explanations of the aspects of consciousness that are popularly thought of as spirituality or transcendence. But vast numbers of "new atheists" are apostates who have first-hand awareness of the religious experience.

Wrong again.
The histories of philosophical and theological study do not support the validity of the supernatural any more than do the histories of tarot, astrology or voodoo. The supernatural is entirely dependent on a lack of understanding of natural relationships and causes. As our understanding of the natural world has increased, natural explanations have had a nasty habit of debunking supernatural beliefs. So too, improved understanding of neuro-physiology removed any objective reason to suspect that "spiritual transcendence" is anything more than brain function. Stimulating the brain naturally/artificially (electromagnetically, via brain damage or chemically... as opposed to supernaturally) results in the same experience as that induced by religious fervor. This is not coincidence or mere correlation. There is a cause and effect here. Artificially stimulating the brain doesn't induce a spiritual episode, it induces the perception of a spiritual episode. When a "spiritual" episode is induced by religious fervor the same brain function is taking place. Do supernatural occurrences have the same effect on the brain as artificial stimulation? Does artificially induced perception of spirituality merely open a window in the brain to let transcendence in? Is brain function is a side effect of supernatural influence? If so, and we take away the side effect, where is the spirituality? There's nothing left.

There are arguments to be made on behalf of "spirituality." But every argument that mitigates natural explanations (which we can observe and measure) also may be used equally well or better against supernatural explanations (which we can't observe for some strange reason).

So right, you're wrong.
Additionally Aslan supposes that the ubiquity of "spiritual" or "transcendent" experiences is evidence of the supernatural. And I have to admit that this is subjective evidence. But it is also evidence that no religious doctrine can claim authority. If there is a supreme supernatural entity being accessed through spirituality then apparently every religion, as well as deism and agnosticism have equal access, contrary to the claims of at least the big three religions. So thank you Reza for debunking judaism, christianity and islam.

And would you believe: Wrong?
Is the supernatural knowable or not? (not = unknowable)
Does the supernatural influence the natural or not?
Is the influence of the supernatural observable (objectively attributable) or not?
If the answer is "no" then there is no point in pursuing the supernatural even if it is real. If the answer to any one of these questions is "yes" then the answer to all of them is "yes." If the answer is “yes” then the supernatural is subject to scientific investigation. Well, it could be that the supernatural can only be known through subjective intuition and/or unassailable prophets. But even then, observations and predictions should be possible. But for some reason attempts to observe supernatural influences either rely on bias or result in random (non-confirmational) results. Supernatural influence is exactly as reliable as random chance. So even if the answer were "yes," even if it is real, the supernatural is moot.

Fundamentally wrong.
If there is anything new about "new atheists" it is their motivation. As a movement, atheists are responding to the growing influence of religious fundamentalist. While most religious people are "watered-down" or moderate about which cherry picked specifics deserve their faith, it is the believers who submit more of themselves to faith that grab the reigns* and pull the rest along. The very nature of faith is to believe without evidence, or worse: despite evidence. Beyond the topic of religion faith is recognized as being unreasonable or ideological. But in a religious or spiritual context, it is somehow considered admirable. It is the less reasonable, more faithful people who are motivated to represent their groups. These faithful are the people who drive their groups’ agendas. And it is the most faithful who taint civil progress with archaic superstition and dogma. It is these people who disrupt secular politics and education with claims of moral superiority and magic origins. They have become better organized, better funded and more intrusive with their "spirituality." The only thing new about "new atheists" is their new-found motivation from necessity.

The term "atheist fundamentalism" is either an oxymoron or redundant. Atheism is an absence of belief in god(s). For purposes of this argument I would even allow a substitute definition: belief in the absence of god(s) (assuming we all understand the distinction). This definition is the sole and fundamental belief of atheism. What does the fundamentalist atheist believe that the non-fundamentalist atheist does not? Their belief is the same. Their interpretation of their belief is the same. If their behaviors differ it is not because one follows a more fundamental or literal interpretation of the sole belief. Attempting to liken verbose atheism to bible literalism is a disingenuous ad hominem distraction. In short, it’s dishonest.

*(Yes, I know how to spell “reins.” The homonym was too good to ignore.)


  1. Yes, compare what people variously believe about e transcendent with the old story about the six sighted men and the elephant, who said:

    "That's an elephant."
    "Yup, sure is an elephant."
    "I prefer to call it an 'oliphaunt', but I know what you mean."
    "Yeah, that's an elephant."
    "It elephant."
    "Oh, so that's what an 'elephant' is."

    ...or when the same men were in a room without an elephant in, at which point they all said something like, "No sign I can see of an elephant in here."

  2. Simply wonderful response. Unfortunately, Aslan has heard all of this reasoning before, and absorbing it would end his career as the "moderate" face of Islam.