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Are you an atheist, religionist, deist, fideist or ????

From my “Rocking the Boat” Blog site


Apparently we Americas spend a great deal of time thinking about and change our religious and spiritual beliefs and practices. One telltale example: Many theists are embracing deism. Here is what Wikipedia had to say about this:“The 2001American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) survey, which involved 50,000 participants, reported that the number of participants in the survey identifying themselves as deists grew at the rate of 717% between 1990 and 2001. If this were generalized to the US population as a whole, it would make deism the fastest-growing religious classification in the US for that period, with the reported total of 49,000 self-identified adherents representing about 0.02% of the US population at the time.[15][16]”Along the same line, during a “For Good Reason podcast on “The Search for Quantum Consciousness,” physicist Victor Stenger touched on a Baylor University survey that revealed that 40% of people who identify themselves as Christians basically do not believe in a God who plays an active role in the universe (13m:47s into the podcast). Dr. Stenger makes the point that these folks sound like deists.The rise of deism and the Christian identification with it in principle if not in name, tells me a lot of believing folks have taken the time to ruminate on whether or not there is sufficiently compelling evidence to believe God is actively playing a role in their lives – like answering prayers, performing miracles and such. 4 of 10 Christians in the Baylor survey appear to have concluded that God is on holiday. This is one way to for religionists to reconcile what goes on in the world and is attested to by scientific findings with one’s particular brand of faith (Of course, one can jettison faith altogether, which is what Dr. Stenger has done and advocates in his books “God: The Failed Hypothesis” and “Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness”.)

Now, while believers may be increasingly leaning toward a deist stance on God, it is unlikely the great majority will decide the Almighty simply doesn’t exist and never did. Of course, what believers have to be careful of is making claims concerning God’s actions or motives that can be tested using the tools of science or refuted using demonstrable or deducible facts informed by logic. For instance, religionists who insist there was a worldwide flood that a man named Noah and his clan rode out in an ark run into monumental problems such as a lack of evidence for a global deluge in the geologic record, not to mention the fact the energy released by what is described in scriptures would have resulted in oceans so hot as to constitute a de facto lobster pot in which everything living including those in the ark would have boiled to death, et cetera (There is, however evidence of a local flood in Mesopotamia about the time the incidents described in Genesis were supposed to have occurred.) And if an evangelist declares a dying cancer patient healed, this is testable insofar as doctors can put the healing to the test using modern day scanners (One doctor who did track down 23 people who were declared healed of terminal diseases during services conducted in 1967 by evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman  found no evidence to support this.)

Putting aside biblical and extrabiblical claims of the miraculous – which can be examined and either confirmed or found wanting — there is a host of very dark chapters in history such as the reign of Hitlerism-Nazism in Germany (1933-1945) and its “wicked fruit” (especially the Holocaust) that have profound implications for God’s role in human affairs, suggesting to many believers that either God is or was on holiday or just isn’t around at all. As a boy I mulled this over and came to the tentative conclusion that God was not necessarily absent from human affairs, but had simply assumed a more subtle role in lock-step with our ever increasing ability to run our own show.  Of course, as our control over nature and each other increased and our tools and weapons became more sophisticated and powerful – the greater our potential became for doing both great good or great evil. The choice ultimately rests with us, of course, though we are told (in the Tanakh, Christian New Testament and Qur’an) that humankind will not be allowed to fully extinguish its own flame.

To my delight my boyhood spin on theodicy was independently arrived at by many others, including scholar David Birnbaum who fleshed it out (1989) on a scholarly level in a delightfully insightful book titled “God and Evil: A Unified Theodicy/Theology/Philosophy” 

Obviously matters of faith lacking testable claims – amounting to convictions and beliefs in the absence of evidence — cannot genuinely be settled either decisively or conclusively. Often, one man’s truth is another one’s heresy. And treatises on theodicy like the one I came up with as a boy could as easily be accommodated by some forms of deism as it could conventional or orthodox religions.

Even belief in God amounts to a commitment in the absence of evidence. Atheists and agnostics can and have trumped Judeo-Christian apologetics using a body of powerful evidence and logic. I would urge my fellow religionists to face up to this and consider embracing polymath Martin Gardner’s fideist spin on God (which could also be applied to many aspects of faith including certain dogmas, doctrines and such.) This is ably captured in a comment made by famed illusionist and champion of skeptical thinking, James Randi, on Gardner’s passing at age ninety-five (95):

“……Yes, Martin was a fideist, and he defended that belief in his usual calm, direct fashion. When I questioned him on the subject he told me that he had no really good evidence to support his belief, but that it simply made him feel better to adopt it. He said that I — and other curmudgeons — had far better evidence for our convictions, but that he just felt more secure in his acceptance. He admitted — easily — that he could not convincingly argue his case… That was Martin, and I love him for being Martin…..”

Mr. Randi’s comment in its entirety can be found by clicking this link

I am not here to dictate what people believe or not. I’m here to rock boats that could use some rocking. Religion is one of these. But rocking this boat doesn’t mean telling folks what to believe or how to express their faith. Rather, I relish sharing ideas, information and lines of thought that at least some believers might find useful in terms of helping better reconcile their convictions and beliefs with what science and history has revealed about our origins and nature.  And this, my friend, brings me to the purpose of this particular blog entry: Namely, to pass along something which I believe will serve this purpose for at least a few believers reading this thought stream —

THE SACRED EMERGENCE OF NATURE by Ursula Goodenough and Terrence W. Deacon (The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science) 

Happy belated “Religious Liberty Day”! Keep rocking boats that need rocking! I sure will.

Dr. Anthony G. Payne


The Spiritual Aspects of “Holistic” Medicine

The foundation of holism or holistic medicine rests on a triumvirate — body, mind and spirit. Actually, as the mind is an expression of the various regions of the brain — a species of the physical — we are really dealing with body/brain and spirit. The former, of course, has been probed and explored using the tools of medicine and science. No one questions their reality. Spirit, on the other hand, by most definitions is non-material, and thus lies beyond the purview of science; that is, one cannot demonstrate spirit using a gas chromatograph, scanning electron microscope, or any other tool in the armamentarium of science.

But what of the effects of spirit? If it exists, should we not be able to detect its effects on the physical realm? This is a question which now occupies many philosophers, some scientists and physicians, and many laypeople.

One very often cited manifestation of spirit lies in the realm of answered prayer. Numerous studies have been carried out in which patients with a given affliction were divided into two groups: One received prayer (experimental group) and the other (control group) didn’t. The prayers were offered off-site and no one involved in the study knew who was being prayed for and who wasn’t (double-blind).

The bottom line of many of these studies is that prayer appears to have made a significant difference in the relief or cure of the malady or affliction in the experimental group, while those in the control group had no appreciable change in their condition. The rigor of these studies has been found wanting by countless impartial investigators. That is, flaws in study design, methodology and/or execution have basically invalidated the findings of these clinical trials.

What of the healings connected with religious shrines, such as Lourdes? There have been approximately 69 healings connected with Lourdes which have met the Catholic church’s criteria for a bona fide miracle — 69 out of the hundreds of thousands of petitions for healing. This is not statistically significant. In short, the numbers do not support the notion that the rate of recovery/healing at Lourdes is greater than would be expected to occur as a result of normal processes. (One can expect a certain percentage of even incurable illnesses to suddenly and inexplicably go into remission. These recoveries happen to non-believer and believer alike — and hence appear contingent on natural and not supernatural mechanisms.)

I know what many of you are thinking — “Leave it to a skeptical, non-believing blankety-blank scientist to trash our sacred beliefs.” If you are nodding your head in agreement — you are dead wrong. First of all, I am a theist. I also believe that God hears and answers prayer — and even heals people through various means including the ministrations of physicians. Well, wait a minute, isn’t this contradictory or hypocritical, given what I wrote above? No, indeed, for I do not allege that my beliefs are based on hard science nor the manifestations of spirit, or God so physically evident as to permit measurement or quantification. In fact, those who believe that spirit, God, or any aspect of the supernatural can be demonstrated in a controlled study or lab experiment invite upon themselves the unenviable task of proving their claims. (It is always incumbent on those who propose the existence of something which can be physically detected and, thus measured, to do just that.) And I, for one, do not believe that they will ever garner any substantive proof. Why?

Consider this: In virtually every religious tradition God requires that humankind both apprehend His existence and relate to him via faith — a conviction based not on the physical and demonstrable, but on sheer belief. If God were to reveal Himself in the lab or clinical trial setting — say, by answering the prayers for healing in an experimental group at rates which exceed chance — the need for faith would be dispensed with. We could base our confidence, our belief in the spiritual and a First Cause (God) on the hard data provided by the study in question.

This, of course, would make God the author of a serious contradiction and would obligate most major religions to toss out many of their principle doctrines concerning the nature of the deity, the need for faith as a requisite for apprehending the divine, et cetera. It would also raise serious questions as to the reliability of revealed truths about God (oral and written traditions).

Since I do not believe God would ask one thing (faith) and then reveal Himself in a concrete, scientifically demonstrable fashion, I am not surprised or dismayed that laboratory experiments and clinical trials do not turn upon any credible data which stands up to scrutiny. I also realize, however, that there are some who believe that faith isn’t the only requisite to apprehending God or the supernatural and will continue to carry out studies aimed at catching a glimpse of the divine in action.

In my opinion they are wasting both time and money, but should they one day prove to be right — if they do incontrovertibly demonstrate the efficacy of prayerful supplication (to God) in healing a given malady — skeptic and believer alike will be making some rather profound changes to their distinct perspectives. This isn’t beyond the pale of possibility. I think, however, that such definitive proof will in some ways weigh more heavily on the religionist then the agnostic or skeptic.

While the debate rages and the studies plod along, what role then should the spiritual play in healing/medicine? I think most physicians — even diehard atheists — at the very least accommodate a narrow species of “spirituality,” in the sense of encouraging hope and making use of patient expectation to afford relief, if not cure.

In holistic medicine, on the other hand, the spiritual element more often takes on a different character and importance. The holistic medical community plays host to wide range of spiritual beliefs, including American Indian, New Age, Buddhist, Christian. As long as this spirituality is not called “scientific” or “hard science-based,” or makes claims which can be tested using the tools and methods of science, its place in the patient care repertoire of holistic health care practitioners remains a matter of personal prerogative. And doesn’t faith and personal prerogative lie at the core of human spirituality?

In the final analysis, I think we will find that the substantiation of faith begins and ends on one’s knees — and in one’s heart — and not in the laboratory. 

© 2009 by Dr. Anthony G. Payne. All rights reserved

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