Category Archives: Mysticism

Re-evaluating the value of religion

This essay was written on August 13th, 2003 and edited slightly for this post:

Is religion a value to mankind? Some alleged benefits which have been attributed to religion include: scientific and philosophical principles, technologies such as the printing press, the colonization of the new world, great works of art such as Michelangelo’s David and the Sistine Chapel, monasteries that preserved and carried on knowledge during the Middle Ages, social institutions such as charities, schools, and universities. It’s undeniable that all these things have benefited mankind and that religion played a part in them.

On a personal note, I have  benefited greatly from the Judaism. A Jewish organization helped my parents come to America, placed me in private school so I could learn English and Hebrew, sent me to summer camp, paid for my trip to Israel, and even helped fund my college tuition. In addition to these material benefits, I learned a lot about history, philosophy, ethics, Hebrew, and social interaction while attending Sunday school and then helping to teach it for three years. Many of my religious teachers were intelligent and inspirational people who taught me many things in the classroom and by example.

So, it is indisputable that religion has done many good things for man. Is this sufficient evidence to conclude that religion is a value to man? The fact that an institution does good is not sufficient evidence that it is good overall. Consider a profession which is not considered desirable despite doing some good for people: medical quackery. A quack who sells a fake remedy for all ailments provides some benefit to people: the placebo effect often makes people feel better, and the alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs contained in remedies were often effective and making their users feel better. However, despite the benefit he provides, the quack also defrauds people, does not fix underlying health problems, and often addicts his patients to his “medicine.” Even though the quack provides a benefit, a real doctor could provide a greater benefit to people without the accompanying harm. Thus, when evaluating religion, we must consider the total effect, not just isolated benefits, and evaluate whether the benefits religion provides are essential to its nature.

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What if we took religion seriously?

Virtually no one in the West takes religion seriously.  This is fortunate, because if people did, there could be no such thing as “Western civilization.”  With 82% of Americans professing a belief in God, does this sound like a silly statement?  Let me explain.

The Origin of Religion

The definition of “religion” varies between cultures and scholars, but generally speaking, it originated in pre-history as a solution to a problem:

At some point at the dawn of history, men discovered themselves to be in possession of powerful mental abilities able to perceive the events around them and communicate them to others, but they lacked an explanation for most of the cause of these events.  These men needed to know how to act in response to these events, both social and natural.  Instinct and imitation no longer sufficed in complex social structures and dynamic environments.  Men responded to the challenge by inventing religion.  Religion provided both an explanation of natural phenomena and a set of rules for social behavior.  It was a primitive form of philosophy — a set of beliefs about the fundamental nature of existence and man’s relationship to it.  The nature of these beliefs evolved dramatically over time:

1. The Animism of Primitive Man

Primitive pre-literate man dealt with the chaos of nature by creating animistic spirits which he begged to improve his condition.  Since his prayers and offerings were no better than chance, he led an unpredictable existence dominated by fear.  Nevertheless, a philosophy of existence, crude as it was, was an important survival asset to the first human settlements.  Many thousands of years of pre-history passed in this state.

2. Technological Priesthood & Early Civilization

The first civilizations organized spirits in polytheistic anthropomorphic cults, which held centralized political and religious power.  The technological priesthood was an elite which was either closely related to or was ruling elite and monopolized the dissemination of both practical knowledge and supernatural doctrines (there was little distinction between the two), and was thus able to control the peasant masses which it taxed and enslaved to remain in power.  Their monopoly of technical knowledge was the cause of their eventual downfall:  Egypt, Mesopotamia, Minoa, the Indus valley civilization, the cults organized around the Hebrew temple in Palestine, and the native New World empires successfully kept their secrets from the masses, but were all destroyed by innovative external invaders.

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Faith is emotionalism, Part 2: Perception versus Emotion

(This is the second part of selections from a Facebook debate.  Part 1 is here.)


The key to my disagreement with the theist hinges on the question of “Can we know God?” or “Can have knowledge of the supernatural?”  The theist says yes, we use both experience and the “sensus divinitatus” to acquire knowledge of God.  I disagree – I believe that knowledge of reality can only be obtained through reason, and the supernatural is by its very definition opposed to reason.  Furthermore, the “divine sense” the theist refers to is just emotionalism.  In this post, I will focus on the essence of our disagreement by examining in detail the nature of this supposed divine sense and reveal it to be pure emotionalism.

To recap three key points from my last note:

  • I reviewed valid and invalid means of acquiring knowledge and concluded that truth can only be reached by perceiving it and integrating sensory data – e.g. reason.
  • Emotions are a kind of thinking that tells us about our mental state.
  • We can learn from others, but ultimately new knowledge is formed by integrating new evidence into our own experience of reality.

Introduction: Faith is emotionalism

My key criticism of the theistic argument for faith is:  it is emotionalism.   But emotions are not evidence of reality, only of one’s mental state.  Neither revelation nor any other evidence for the supernatural is possible.   I believe this argument is sufficient to disprove all religious convictions, as all other (i.e. “historical”) arguments for the supernatural are revealed to be absurd once a proper epistemology (e.g. reliance on the senses) is assumed.

The Nature of the Senses

Let’s begin with the senses we agree on: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.    This much has been known since Aristotle.  What is the exact nature and method of these senses?

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Faith is emotionalism, Part 1: Epistemology

(In the next few posts, I’m going to re-post selections from a Facebook debate:)

Many apologetics claim that their faith is based on reason and evidence. In fact faith is just a kind of emotionalism.

Two analogies:

Suppose you decided to base your knowledge of reality on the result of dart throws. Whenever you have some doubts about something, you write four possible answers on a dart board. You would aim the dart in the general direction of the board, turn off the lights, and throw. Whichever answer is closest to the dart becomes your conclusion.

What is wrong with this methodology? If you adhere to the correspondence theory of truth (that for a belief to be true, it must correspond to reality) then you should realize that answer “chosen” by the dart has no correspondence to reality. Why not? Because there is no causal connection between your ideas and the random path taken by the dart. The dart’s path is not a valid proof of your conclusion because it is not derived from observation or logical consideration of the ideas in question.

Frustrated, you try another methodology:

You will write down the four answers as before, and then take a large dose of hallucinogenic and amnesia-inducing drugs. You will pick the answer in your drugged state but have no memory of how you selected it when you are sober again. Is this conclusion valid? Now, you are not depending on random chance, but on a distorted version of your own mental processes. Is your method any more valid? No – there is still not causal connection between the idea and your drugged ravings. The answers are you most likely to choose will probably correspond to your existing conclusions. But it will still not be any kind of proof or evidence.

Reason means a valid epistemology:

In order for evidence to be valid, there must be a valid epistemological process. To prove that a claim is true, we must verify it by deriving a conclusion step by step from the evidence of our own senses in accordance with the laws of logic. This process is known as reason. If we fail to rely on our senses and logic, we might as well be throwing the allegorical darts in the dark. Doing so willingly is irrationality.

What is the “evidence” given for supernatural claims?

There are two possible kinds: empirical claims and non-empirical claims. Empirical claims are based on observation, such as “the universe exists, so God must have created it” or “I saw Jesus on a piece of toast I ate last week.” These claims are wrong, but they do not involve faith, since they can be proven or disproven. No one would take such arguments seriously however if it were not for claims based on non-empirical evidence – faith. This takes many forms in different religions, but generally it is a kind of “revelation.” Ultimately, all revelation can be reduced to emotionalism. How so? This requires an understanding of the nature of emotion:

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Christian fundamentalists put freaks on parade

Christians and other mystics sometimes argue that religion makes people moral. I disagree: morality is a practical science which can only be understood by rational consideration, not emotionalism (the epistemological method of faith). To the extent that religious dogmas and religious people preach and act morally, they derive their principles using the same rational methods and the same evidence that is available to everyone. Since rational moral claims need no mystical basis, it is only the irrational and immoral actions which require religious justification. To the extent that religious beliefs as such influence people’s actions, they can only influence them to do wrong – sometimes unspeakable and sometimes trivial, but still evil.

For the most part, modern Western religions, such as those in the United States, merely consist of mindless time-wasting rituals. They are evil in the sense of distracting people from more productive activities, especially from more productive means of finding moral guidance. Nevertheless, for the most part, and despite their religion, most Americans are good and productive people, who pay lip-service to a dogma highly diluted by Western philosophy and modern science.

The prime candidate for the moral monopoly of religion in America is the domain of life and death. This is where the real evil of religious influence becomes evident. One particularly despicable influence of religion was out on display when John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate. One of Governor’s Palin’s qualifications for the presidential ticket is that she gave birth to a baby with Down syndrome in April.

The fact that Palin’s baby has Down syndrome is certainly tragic. Down not only severely impacts the health and life-expectancy of the child, is also a tremendous burden on their caretakers. (Aside from my personal observation, my girlfriend has worked closely with Down parents and their children.) As an unpredictable genetic disorder however, the symptom cannot be blamed on anyone. Except for this: since January 2007, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has recommended Down screening for all pregnant women, and so Governor Palin knew that her fetus had Down’s, and decided to continue her pregnancy anyway. Furthermore, she has turned her decision into political leverage in the upcoming election as proof of her moral virtuousness:

“How refreshing that now we have a woman who reflects the values of mainstream American women,” said Janice Shaw Crouse of the conservative group Concerned Women for America.

Whereas previously, a Down’s child could be born without the prior knowledge of the mother, going forward, a parent with a Down’s child will likely (at least in the developed world) have made a conscious choice to have that child. The child represents a sacrifice made by their parents for their faith. As the recommendations of ACOG are implemented nationwide, Down children (and eventually those with other genetic disorders) will increasingly become symbols of faith – a freak show meant to communicate the “family values” of their parents. They will be a symbol of religious reverence in the same way as the scarred backs of Catholics who flagellate themselves, or Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire, or Sunni Muslims who mutilate their girl’s genitals or Shiites who bloody their and their children’s heads with swords.

Genuine moral virtues – such as integrity, honesty, and productivity are not useful as evidence of religious virtue. To the extent that their practical benefit is visible to everyone, they do not represent the special domain of religion. To demonstrate religious virtue, it is necessary to sacrifice authentic moral values in favor of “religious” values. The particular object of the sacrifice is not important – there is nothing particularly “biblical” about being prolife (the Christian bible just as easily supports the opposite position.) If Christian fundamentalists decided that cutting of one’s hand sufficed as proof of moral virtue, they would still be guilty of evil, but not much more so than the numerous other ways that people of all kinds find to be self-destructive. What is really vicious about fundamentalists in America is that the prey on the most vulnerable –poor pregnant young girls and women, those dying from painful terminal illnesses, the loved ones of brain-dead patients, — and children afflicted with terrible genetic illnesses.

One can at least grasp the moral indifference with which a fundamentalist can force a single young mother to abandon her goals and dreams and condemn her and her child to poverty. But what can we say about a parent that chooses a life of suffering upon their child? If we are morally outraged by child rapists, how should we judge a parent who chooses a lifetime of suffering on their own child?


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Ignorant creationists accidentally vote for evolution

The creationist ignoramuses on the Florida Board of Education officially upheld evolution yesterday when they voted to approve “the scientific theory of evolution” as the “the fundamental concept underlying all of biology.”  Presumably, they thought that the inclusion of the word “theory” is a slight to science – demonstrating an utter ignorance of the scientific process.  In the battle against theocracy, this episode reinforces the lesson that a proper epistemology is more desperately needed than knowledge of any particular theory.  Hopefully, students will now learn the meaning of “scientific theory” in addition to evolution.

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Did Christianity's underdog origins allow the success of Western Civilization?

It’s interesting to note that with the exception of Christianity and some schools of Buddhism, every other major world religion were created as a means for the ruling regime to justify its grip on power as an expression of divine will. The divine hierarchy of the Old Testament’s angelic pantheon reflects and perpetuates the rigid social hierarchy of the ruling elite of its society. The god of the Old Testament demands taxes (sacrifices) accepts no competition (he murders over two million unbelievers) or critical questioning of the law, and presents a facade of voluntary submission (convert or face annihilation).

The New Testament on the other hand, was written before Christianity transformed to an institution of theocratic dictatorship. It presents a personal rather than collective choice (submit or you will burn in hell, as opposed to your tribe/descendants.) This subtle distinction may be responsible for the success of Western civilization, as secular rulers did not feel personally threatened when reason eroded the power of the church. (Of course, that did not stop the church itself from butchering secularists for as long as it could.) This is still not possible in the Islamic and Confucian world, where the secular and divine authority is united in a single institution. The attempt to introduce Aristotelian philosophy by Ibn-Rushd in particular, was wildly successful in the West, but because rational questioning was a threat to current regime, it was snuffed out by the institutionalization of doctrines such as the taqleed.

In Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam, Mahayana Buddhism has allowed a similar erosion of divine authority, creating the “Asian Tigers.” In this light, Communism can be seen as an attempt to preserve the union of divine and secular authority.


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A review of Rick Warren's “The Purpose Driven Life”

The Purpose Driven Life book cover
Image via Wikipedia

While browsing Amazon, Rick Warrens new book “The Purpose Driven Life” caught my attention. The name interested me because I believe that a sense of purpose is vitally important for human beings. Without a sense of purpose and the identification of values to act towards and achieve, life would indeed be useless and meaningless. With my interest thus piqued, I opened the first (virtual) page to investigate what purpose the book suggested. The book begins with the quote from Bertrand Russell, who said “Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless.” Here is the first paragraph from the book:

It’s not about you.
The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.

The rest of the book expands on this answer. I want to analyze the alternative presented by the author above, but before I do that, I will consider the question he attempts to answer. Is the question of purpose of one’s life important at all? Does man even need a purpose to life?

We can begin the analysis by asking, “Why does the question of purpose arise for human beings?” The question does not apply to all entities. A stone does not have a purpose. It is created by some process, exists for some time, and then is destroyed by some other process. At no point does the question “What am I here for?” arise for the rock, since rocks are inorganic entities lacking a consciousness. Some would argue that it is applicable to man-made objects, such as a table, but in such cases, the purpose exists only because a conscious being such as a man created it to achieve some value. Man might also decide to use a rock, a tree, or a field for some end, but these things only have a purpose insofar as they provide a value to a conscious being, and not one inherent in themselves.

Animals and plants do act to achieve particular values by particular means. Their actions are aimed at specific ends – namely, their survival and reproduction. But the question of purpose does not arise for them either because their actions are automatic, determined by instinct. They cannot choose, as men do, to live by one means or another, to be carnivores or herbivores, to live or die. Unlike non-living entities, they have various values, such as food, reproduction, and shelter, but they have no way to consciously choose which values to achieve or which course of action to take to achieve them beyond their immediate environment.

Human beings are unique in being a living being without an automatic guide to actions and values. We alone must choose which values we want to achieve, and the means we take to achieve them. Like animals, our survival is still conditional — we must take a particular course of action to stay alive, but the means to achieve the values necessary for our survival are not automatically given to us by instinct. We have some basic urges – to eat, or to reproduce, but no means to achieve them without conscious action. In place of instinct, nature has equipped man with the facility of reason – the use of his senses and his rational faculty to gain knowledge of reality and then act on it. If an animal’s instinct fails to provide the values it needs in a given environment, it will die – but a man has the capacity to adapt to almost any environment he finds, as the proliferation of humanity on every corner of the earth demonstrates. The basic question every man faces as a living being  is “to live or not to live,” and since reason is his only means of survival, his basic choice is “to think or not to think.” Every value we enjoy in our civilized, comfortable, existence is the product of the application of man’s mind to reality. The food we eat, the cars we drive, the entertainment we enjoy are all products of some man’s mind. The difference between our comfortable lives and the short, dangerous, and miserable existence that our ancestors eked out in trees, caves, huts, and caverns not so long ago was created – and is continually made possible by application of the reason to the problem of man’s survival.

What does the cynical atheist Bertrand Russell and the Christian pastor Rick Warren, the author of the “The Purpose Driven Life” say is the purpose of man’s life?

The Christian perspective is that the issue of man’s survival is irrelevant to the question of what the purpose.  As pastor Warren stresses repeatedly, our earthly values – whether in our career, family, friends, or any other are in themselves meaningless. The very things that make life on earth possible and pleasurable are irrelevant to him. Instead, our actions should be focused on a higher, unearthly realm, which contains the answers of our existence. “Unless you assume the existence of God, the purpose of life is meaningless,” he says, thereby voiding our selfish happiness as a worthwhile purpose to existence. Instead, he argues that “We were planned for God’s pleasure, so your first purpose is to offer real worship.” According to Christianity, man’s purpose on earth is to be a sacrificial offering (sacrificial, because we are to sacrifice earthly values) to some invisible, unknowable entity. This entity deserves devotion not because it offers a proof for its existence or material reward for service, but because man has not yet uncovered all the secrets of the universe, and no one has stoop up to say that just because man is not omnipotent does not mean that he can’t be certain of what he does not.  The main reason that religion still receives the devotion or lip service of billions is not on the strength of its argument, but because the secular opposition has rejected man’s primary means of knowing himself or his world.

What alternative does the typical cynical, nihilistic, materialistic atheist, such as Bertrand Russell offer in response to the Christian mystic? He agrees with the mystics that without God, life is meaningless, but seeing that there is no evidence for a supernatural realm, he therefore rejects meaning. He agrees with the mystics that without God man has no free will, so he rejects free will and volition. He agrees with the mystics that without God, there can be no morality (“If God is dead, all is permitted” as that quote falsely attributed to Dostoevsky goes) so he rejects morality. In the crucial question of man’s existence, the skeptic and the mystic agree that man has no purpose, volition, or virtue outside of the authority of some external entity. Man’s life in itself therefore, is meaningless, the skeptics and the mystic agree, and only has value so far as man offers himself as a sacrifice to some greater entity or purpose.

The skeptic denies the supernatural and claims to be a materialist, but he usually proposes some other “higher” purpose for existence anyway.   He replaces subservience to the supernatural with subservience to an equally mystical or collectivist entity, such as service to society (socialism), the race or state (fascism), the environment, the ethnic group or tribe (multiculturalism)  innate emotionalism (Nietzschean nihilism and “intuition”.) The cynical atheist simply replaces the worship of one supernatural and unknowable entity with another. The mystics present man as a pathetic ghost, unworthy of life, in conflict with his physical (baser) nature, and existing only as a sacrificial offering for another realm, The skeptics present man as a Frankenstein – a walking bag of chemicals without freedom, meaning, or self-esteem, and existing as a sacrificial offering for the “common good.” The mystics demand that man sacrifice his worldly values for the supernatural, and the skeptics either argue that man should sacrifice his life to the collective, or that he should pursue whatever values he wants at the moment, while denying his basic means (his rational mind) of achieving them.

Are these the only possibilities man has – to choose which entity to sacrifice himself to? Is morality measured by the totality to which man abdicates his own, selfish interests to serve some “higher” and “greater” end? If denying one’s “selfish” interests means denying the things that make life on earth possible and pleasurable, then isn’t death the highest reward of following such a moral code? After all, the only way to be a consistent altruist, and consistently reject one’s “lower” urges, is to sacrifice everything one values, including the things that make life possible. (Luke 14:26-33, 18:18-22) The only way to practice the religious – or the collectivist morality and continue living, is to live a life of guilty contradiction, pursuing one’s values one moment, while denying them the other, using reason for “practical” matters, but denying it when it is truly important. Is it any wonder that faced with the alternative of being a ghost and a sacrificial offering or an unthinking bag of flesh, blindly following hormonal urges, so many men either live a life of guilty contradiction or reject morality and philosophy entirely – thus becoming even more helpless to whatever bromides they unthinkingly and uncritically accept.

The false alternative presented by the mystics and the skeptics is not the only kind of existence open to man. Recognizing man’s nature and the requirements of his life provides both the purpose of existence and the means to achieving it. Life – the choice to live or not to live, is the basic alternative that makes morality both possible and necessary. Life is the trait that makes morality possible for man, and reason is the unique characteristic that makes it necessary. Without the possibility of death, no moral values are necessary, and without the faculty of reason, no moral choice is possible. The primary moral value is each man’s own life, and the primary virtue – the means of maintaining it — is rationality. “Man has a single basic choice: to think or not, and that is the gauge of his virtue. Moral perfection is a unbreached rationality — not the degree of your intelligence, but the full and relentless use of your mind, not the extent of your knowledge, but the acceptance of reason as an absolute.” — Ayn Rand. Morality is not a means to a supernatural realm, a restrain on the enjoyment of earthly values, a supernatural revelation, a social consensus, an absolutist commandment, or a biological imperative, but a practical, selfish means of living a complete, happy, meaningful, moral earthly existence through the consistent application of reason as the answer to the question of one’s life.

This moral code represents the total opposite of the mystics and the skeptics morality. The Christians pervert morality by deeming man guilty for the actions of one man – and then claim that redemption comes from the actions of yet another. The skeptics pervert morality by enslaving man to live for the needs of everyone but himself, or by denying morality outright, and enslaving him to his emotions. As man’s reason has discovered more and more of the deepest secrets of the universe, he has improved his condition tremendously – even as the mystics and the skeptics systematically deny that man’s reason has any efficacy or significance to his existence. Both pervert morality by denying the very things that make life possible and meaningful – reason, egoism, self-esteem. Both oppose the virtues necessary for man to thrive – independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productivity, and pride by advocating self-sacrifice, collectivism, faith, mercy, dependence on the supernatural/collective, and humility in their place.

Here is the undiluted evil of “The Purpose Driven Life,” from the third paragraph of the book:

“We ask self-centered questions like What do I want to be? What should I do with my life? What are my goals, my ambitions, my dreams, and my future? But focusing on ourselves will never reveal our life’s purpose. The Bible says, “It is God who directs the lives on his creatures; everyone’s life is in his power.” [emphasis author’s]

Christianity requires us to reject our goals, ambitions, dreams, and our very lives as moral values, and demands that we sacrifice them to a supernatural realm. Rick Warren recognizes man’s vital need for a sense of purpose, moral worth, and then denounces all the things that make them possible. He claims to offer a “purpose driven life” but instead gives us a death-driven sacrifice. We need not endure the unearthly torment of that anguish.


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Why Objectivists Shouldn’t Be “Atheists”

Relax, I still think that Jesus is nothing but a dressed-up Santa for adults. What I realized after debating with Christians during the last few days however, is that presenting yourself as an “atheist” or making atheism the focus in a debate is not a good idea. The obvious reason is that I am not primarily an advocate of atheism, but of reason and individual rights. However, this fact alone does not explain how one should present these issues to theists, who happen to be the great majority of the students at my school. As I found out, there are three good reasons to avoid making God the focus or even a starting point of your arguments.
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All hail the magical, invisible pink elephant!

Whenever I get frustrated with Christians, it’s time to pull out the invisible pink elephant. It’s almost as effective as the “step out in front of an oncoming semi and pray/wish/pretend that it goes away” line.
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