Monthly Archives: June 2013

Is It Dogmatic to Be Anti-Dogma?

I once overheard a man advising his daughter on romantic relationships:

The only rule is that there are no rules.

A friend of mine likes to say,

The only absolute is that there are no absolutes.

At a recent meeting of a philosophy club, we lamented the shortcomings of ideology and dogma, but within 5 minutes someone had claimed that the statement…

Dogma is bad.

…is, itself, dogma.

These slippery propositions are all of the same shape as the statement

This statement is false.

If the statement is true, then what is true (the statement) is in fact false. If the statement is false, then what it says (that it is false) is true.

Kurt Godel famously proved that there are an infinite number of statements like these*. The trick is to avoid making them.

How to do that? Give your statement an anchor outside of itself. As Douglas Hofstadter showed in one of my favorite books, I Am a Strange Loop, strange things happen when things reference themselves.

Instead of saying, “My ideology is that ideologies are bad,” we can say, “I am convinced, based on evidence, that believing things without evidence is unwise.” The statement about believing without evidence is now made based on believing with evidence. The statement is no longer self-referential.

Instead of saying, “The only absolute is that there are no absolutes,” we can make a more modest statement that is probably what we really mean anyway: “Every absolutist system I’ve seen runs into logical or practical trouble.” It’s not as cute, but at least it doesn’t chase its own tail.

So, I would say that it is not dogmatic to be anti-dogma, any more than atheism is a faith or not collecting stamps is a hobby.

* – Actually, Godel’s proof was about statements like “This statement cannot be proven,” but the idea is similar. See my blog post here.

Hypnotized at the Alpha Course

19 million people and one beagle have taken the Alpha Course. Designed for those who want to explore the Christian faith, Alpha’s tag line is,

If you could ask God one question, what would you ask?

I took Alpha three and a half years ago, shortly after my exit from evangelical Christianity. I had lots of questions that I had concluded were unanswerable from the evangelical perspective, but I thought I would give it one more go.

It turned out that my questions were not the ones the course was designed to answer, but I did make a couple of good friends, and I still get together with them every few weeks. When the church organized a reunion of the many Alpha classes they have held, I accepted their very warm invitation.

This is the story of how I got hypnotized at the reunion.

The evening was structured just like a regular Alpha meeting. We began with a truly superb pot-luck dinner, sang a few worship songs, watched a video, and finally broke up into small groups for discussion.

Our discussion centered on a question that was something like “How did Alpha change your life for the better?”

One after another, the people in my circle described in glowing terms how Alpha had improved their lives. One man said he had been a church-goer all his life, but Alpha taught him for the first time what Christianity was really about. A woman shared how Alpha had equipped her to find peace in the midst of some difficult personal circumstances.

I felt that I could not say a thing.

The group leader even encouraged “those who have not spoken yet” to say something, but I was rendered mute.

Normally, I have to hold myself back from hogging the floor. Why could I say nothing here?

Well, every aspect of the evening had been unintentionally arranged to encourage group unity. It was very uncomfortable to dissent from the “Alpha changed my life” party line.

I want to emphasize that unintentional part. No group of people could have been more welcoming, kind and sincere. Even what they said about unbelievers was refreshingly humble and sensitive. For example, my small-group leader, a scientist by profession, said that Alpha had taught him how to explain to his atheist co-workers “why these questions are important.” He did not say, “why Christianity is the only way,” much less, “why God’s justice demands that they go to hell.”

So what made it impossible to speak?

First, I had shared dinner with these wonderful people. Many of them had lovingly prepared truly excellent food. (This church really knows how to cook!) Who wants to bite the hand that has just fed you?

Then there was the worship: everyone in the room facing the same direction and singing, in unison, songs that were soothing and affirming.

You [God] are my strength when I am weak;
You are the treasure that I seek;
You are my all in all.
Seeking You as a precious jewel,
Lord, to give up I’d be a fool.
You are my all in all.

Next, we had the video about how wonderful and successful Alpha has been. As could only be expected, this was not a critical examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the program. It was 100% positive. Oh — and while watching it I was enjoying coffee and homemade pastries. The hand that fed me again.

By the time we got to the group discussion, I really didn’t want to rain on anyone’s parade. If I had said the truth — that Alpha did not answer any of my questions, did not change my life, and only confirmed my conclusion that people become evangelical Christians for insufficient reasons — I have no doubt that the group would have received my words politely. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

If the evening had consisted of only the discussion, and if the question for discussion had been framed in a way that encouraged a variety of perspectives and critical thought, my response might have been different.

For example, the question could have been, “What were the high and low points of your Alpha experience?” I could easily have answered that the high point was making new friends, and the low point was that my questions were neither answered nor, ultimately, welcome.

But no, I was hypnotized by the meal, the music and the group-think.

Still, I’m glad I went. Good food, good friends, and I discovered my own limits.

Bean Farming, Atheism and Altruism

BohnanzaI spent last Friday evening in friendly competition with other freethinkers, playing Bohnanza.

In this game, you try to farm more beans than anyone else by playing the right bean card at the right moment. What makes it interesting is that you can strategically trade cards with other players to get what you want. You can even donate them.

Why would you donate a card to an opponent? The reason explained to me (I was a first-time player) was that you must play your cards in the order they appear in your hand, so a donation can clear away a card that’s interfering with your optimal sequence.

Anyone who grew up with me knows that I like to win at games — especially strategy games. So it might come as a surprise that my first donation was simply because I saw that another player could profit from my card. It did me no immediate good whatsoever.

“Here you go,” I said. “No strings attached, but if you get the opportunity to give back, remember that you owe me one.”

Some of the more experienced players seemed taken aback.

But in fairly short order, my beneficiary donated a card to me.  It was obvious to him and to everyone else that if one gained a reputation for reciprocating donations, then more donations might follow. If instead one greedily accepted donations but never repaid them, then the generosity would stop.

Other players started to make altruistic donations, too. In fact, they became commonplace. Without exception, this group of godless freethinkers were careful to repay their debts, even if they never asked for the debts in the first place. People wanted allies because even if a trade were time-delayed, not strictly obligatory, and maybe not exactly even, it still gave both parties an advantage they would not have had otherwise.

In the end, thanks to the faithful reciprocation of my friends, I won the game.

Thus did altruism emerge from selfishness, in this game as well as in life.

Spiritual Discernment

[Sorry, but this post had to be a Beagle’s Bark.]

Continuing the theme of the last couple of posts, about intuition verus empiricism, I have wanted for some time to write about this passage in the Bible. The apostle Paul says,

… the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For “who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:14-16, NKJV)

So here Paul asserts a third faculty, one beyond reason and intuition: spiritual discernment. What do you think this is?

(Disclaimer: In what follows, I mean to consider spiritual discernment only from a traditional, biblical point of view. I know little of how religions other than evangelical Christianity use the term.)

I was an evangelical for several decades, and I must confess that I never felt I had this spiritual discernment thing figured out. As far as I could ever tell, the feeling is indistinguishable from normal intuition, but (a) it is probably about a spiritual subject and (b) the believer is convinced that God is behind it.

Like secular intuition, spiritual discernment can apparently be honed by years of conventionally acquired knowledge and experience, or diminished by foolish habits. One’s discernment increases with prayer and holiness; it decreases with riotous living. So far, so good.

Insiders-Only Reasoning

What makes me skeptical about spiritual discernment is the exclusivity in the Bible passage above. Supposedly that which is spiritually discerned is “foolishness” to the “natural man” (i.e., the non-Christian or secular person). In fact, this type of knowledge is utterly inaccessible to him, according to the Paul.

The example that Paul uses in the same chapter is the crucifixion of Christ. That God would use such a gruesome, unjust event to bring about forgiveness of sins does seem like foolishness to the unbeliever, but it makes glorious sense to the Christian.

The fact that spiritual knowledge seems irrational to outsiders does not in itself mean it’s false. Most non-scientists would not believe the stunning implications of quantum physics, yet they are true.

So is spiritual discernment on equal footing with advanced science? Do both rely on the same sort of insiders-only reasoning?

Not at all. The scientist — or any other variation of the “natural man” — is convinced that his reasons ought to make sense to anyone who has sufficient background knowledge. He suggests experiments that would invalidate his idea, and invites others to do the same. Whether or not experiments are possible, he attempts to follow universally agreed norms of sound thought. He is willing to change his mind if his interlocutor follows the same norms. He does not claim a special faculty that puts him above everyone else.


An inevitable consequence of insiders-only reasoning, both logically and historically, is that the spiritually discerning person makes himself the judge of everyone else, but allows no-one to judge him. In the passage cited, Paul claims believers “have the mind of Christ” and are therefore fit to judge “all things” literally as if they are Christ himself.

Can we be surprised that the public face of evangelical Christianity in America today consists largely of a mouth — one that pronounces judgement on liberals, homosexuals, the public schools, evolution-believers, scientists who warn us about climate change, those who would interfere with free-market capitalism, and who-knows-how-many other groups? I say this with all humility and regret, as one who was once spoke with that voice.

Scientists can be reluctant to let go of their preferred theories, but not one of them would ever say, “You can’t tell me I’m wrong. I have the mind of Christ and you don’t.”

Where’s the Evidence?

So the spiritually discerning evangelical knows what other people have no hope of knowing and judges them with the mind of Christ. Those are lofty claims indeed. By what evidence does he make them?

Spiritual discernment is by definition beyond physical evidence and even beyond reason. Those who claim to have it seem suspiciously like Martin Harris — one of the Three Witnesses who claimed to have seen the original Golden Plates of the Book of Mormon … but, it turns out, only with “spiritual eyes.” I don’t know about you, but Martin Harris and his ilk do not convince me.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Sometimes the fate of people who believe they are worthy to see what lesser men cannot is downright comical. You know the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Two swindlers convinced an emperor that they could make fabric so exalted that only the worthy and intelligent could see it. The emperor saw this as an opportunity to expose other people’s unworthiness and clothed himself in this supposed fabric — until an honest boy pointed out that the emperor was, in fact, naked.

At other times, comedy is nowhere in sight. Claims of spiritual discernment were at the root of the witch-hunting hysteria that swept Europe, in which tens of thousands of women and men were tortured or executed (the more famous Salem witch trials were small potatoes); the Inquisition that likewise resulted in unspeakable tortures and horrible deaths, and continues in rebranded, milder form until this day; and the religious strife that tears the world apart today like a thousand demons.

He who puts too much stock in spiritual discernment, whether his own or someone else’s, is like one who believes he is truly a magician. He does himself no harm until he attempts to fly off a cliff on a magic carpet, and does others no harm until he attempts to saw them in half.