Shuck and Jive

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Meaning of Life, Part 46

The postman brought me a new book today. It is Jennifer Hecht's Doubt: A History. I really should be doing my sermon, but truth be told, I am having more fun procrastinating.

Are you a doubter or a believer? Take the

The Scale of Doubt Quiz
  1. Do you believe that a particular religious tradition holds accurate knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality and purpose of human life?
  2. Do you believe that some thinking being consciously made the universe?
  3. Is there an identifiable force coursing through the universe, holding it together, or uniting all life-forms?
  4. Could prayer be in any way effective, that is, do you believe that such a being or force (as posited above) could ever be responsive to your thoughts or words?
  5. Do you believe this being or force can think or speak?
  6. Do you believe this being has a memory or can make plans?
  7. Does this force sometimes take human form?
  8. Do you believe that the thinking part or animating force of a human being continues to exist after the body has died?
  9. Do you believe that any part of a human being survives death, elsewhere or here on earth?
  10. Do you believe that feelings about things should be admitted as evidence in establishing reality?
  11. Do you believe that love and inner feelings of morality suggest that there is a world beyond that of biology, social patterns, and accident--ie. a realm of higher meaning?
  12. Do you believe that the world is not completely knowable by science?
  13. If someone were to say, "The universe is nothing but an accidental pile of stuff, jostling around with no rhyme nor reason, and all life on earth is but a tiny, utterly inconsequential speck of nothing, in a corner of space, existing in the blink of an eye never to be judged, noticed, or remembered," would you say, "Now that's going a bit far, that's a bit wrongheaded"?
If you answered No to all these questions, you're a hard-core atheist and of a certain variety: a rationalist materialist. If you said No to the first seven, but then had a few Yes answers, you're still an atheist, but you may have what I will call a pious relationship to the universe. If your answers to the first seven questions contained at least two Not Sure answers, you're an agnostic. If you answered Yes to some of the questions, you still might be an atheist or an agnostic, though not of the materialist variety. If you answered Yes to nine or more, you are a believer....

....Whether you are a non-believer, or you belong to a religion without God, or you are a believer troubled by dark nights of the soul, we are all part of the same discussion. This is because, whatever our position may be, we all have the same contradictory information to work with. Sometimes it feels like there is a God or ultimate certainty, and it would be a great comfort if such a thing existed and we knew the answers to life's ultimate mysteries: who or what created the universe and why; what is human life for; what happens when I die? But there is no universally compelling, empirical, or philosophical evidence for the existence of God, a purposeful universe, or life after death.

Some people may be tone-deaf to the idea of evidence, some may be tone-deaf to the feeling that there is a higher power--we must forgive them each their failing. ...Believers value the sense of mystery human beings can feel when they look inward or beyond; nonbelievers value the ability to map out the world by rational proofs. Yet there is a kind of mutual blindness, as if personal affiliation with one camp or another means more than does interest in the truth. These refusals to consider the opposing viewpoint are in some ways the result of recent history, a still-warm turf war between science and religion that got out of hand. pp. x-xii

Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History


  1. I'm 8 yes, 5 no. Hardcore agnostic, hardline anti-fundamentalist, haha! :)

  2. You may have found the name for your next book club, John!

  3. I also appear to be a "hardcore agnostic". Not something I'm likely to apologize for. I realize I don't know the answers to many questions, and probably never will. Won't stop me from looking, though.

  4. @Don

    That's what I like about the passage I quoted. We are in the midst of a feeling on one hand and rationality on the other and it's ok. No apologies, no coercion.

  5. Interesting set of questions. It will not surprise you that I come out on the faith end.

    The questions, however, do not allow for answers that are evidence based but rather are aspects of faith or world view.

    Further I am not convinced that the words "feelings" and "experience have the same meaning. Some other forms of experience: hearing things that others do not (yes, possibly a psychological problem but some of the prophetic documents in the OT begin with "It the reign of King so and so" or "three years after the earthquake" "the word of God came to" so and so.) What exactly does that mean? How does one describe it in experiential terms?

    Is there a God? How will we determine the answer to the question? Scientific method does not provide the tools to discover an answer. In fact the scientific method specifically excludes, as it must any possibility of outside influence (outside of what science can measure) simply because it cannot measure it.

    I'm not suggesting that there is a shrinking area in which God is in control. I rather suggest that science does not have the tools to discover whether God is in control or if there is a God.

    My "experience of God includes feelings but also that God speaks to me, through me, etc. Of course I cannot prove this by any type of measurable means.

  6. She lost me in the quiz when we could only answer the prayer question in relation to the answer to the "identifiable Force" question.

    So I end up with Yes, No, Yes, No, . . . Hmmmm.

    Why do we have to be one (believers) or the other (agnostic/atheists/ scientists)?

    Why does "belief" mean the suspension of disbelief, and not "trust" in the realm of being where the lilies of the field are clothed, and the birds of the air are fed? Sometimes (like today) the lilies are buried under snow, and the birds are fed by me.

    Which brings me to the one definition for me that holds both mystery and challenge: that is John Dominic Crossan's definition of a kenotic god. That is, "a god whose presence is justice and life, and those absence is injustice and death."

    There is plenty of room in that definition for a unity of life in the universe, and a radical justice as well. Where there is disunity and injustice, there is death, and no god.

    That's as far as I can go in a blog comment.

    The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederic, Maryland canceled all services for today due to the highly predictable universe of global warming, which brought 30 inches of snow to my mountain in West Virginia, and to most of the State of Maryland.

    Did "god" do that? Yes and no . . ."

  7. For sake of disclosure I answered no to most of them with a couple of maybes.

    I really like her admonition not to be tone-deaf to evidence on one hand and the feeling of a higher power on the other.

    What I think she means by feeling is that inner experience of delight in the beauty of the universe that lends oneself to praise perhaps and trust, even as I realize the universe probably never intended itself to be beautiful.

  8. Why do we have to be one (believers) or the other (agnostic/atheists/ scientists)?

    If I am reading her right I think she asks a similar question and provides a critique of the polarization in our time that wants to put us into camps.

    I think there are all these people in our congregations (perhaps within ourselves) as well as in universities, coffee shops, and where else.

  9. Well, I'll have to get the book. I knew it was sort of unfair to respond to an excerpt.

    Good stuff.

    Another storm warning is up for the Eastern Panhandle from tonight through Wednesday. Another 8-11 inches of snow.