August 25, 2005

The Universist Movement: Lost in the Fog and Lovin' It

When one rejects the idea that there is a God who is concerned with the beliefs and behaviors of humans, and who has certainly not granted any knowledge of Himself via Special Revelation, then one is free to go about one's business as though He did not even exist. But what is one then to do about that nagging feeling in the "soul" that finds awe in the creation and cries out for meaning, value, purpose, and answers to life's great mysteries? How do we foster hope, peace, and ethical standards for all mankind? Well, according to the founders of the Universist Movement, you make up your own religion. All Atheists, Agnostics, Deists, Pantheists, and Transcendentalists welcome. Those with knowledge or convictions about God need not apply.

For those not yet familiar with this new and growing religion, formed by a group of medical students out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, here are some choice excerpts from their official website along with some of my comments.
The Universist Alternative can be summarized in one statement:

Universists apply personal reason and experience to the fundamental questions of human existence, derive inspiration from the natural uncertainty of the human state, and deny the validity of revelation, faith and dogma.
My "reason" informs me that the case for Christianity is solid and that all attempted counter-arguments against the resurrection testimonies fall short unless one first presupposes that miracles cannot occur. My "experience" tells me that Christianity resonates with my deepest intuitions about the world and human nature. I could be wrong, but you'd have to give me good "reasons" to change my mind.
Universism is the world's first rational religion. Reaching to the heart of humanity's religious impulse, we have uncovered not faith, but mystery. Not complacency, but awe. We have found an essential element of the human experience in harmony with reason - not in spite of it. Universists know the fuller our understanding of the universe, the greater our appreciation for a reality beyond our imagination. We celebrate individual reason, inspiration in nature, and hope in progress.

For many, Universism is a way for atheists to pine for something beyond ourselves, to celebrate the wonder of the Universe... but still be atheist.
Of course, it would be "unreasonable" to assume that this "religious impulse" has anything to do with the possibility that a God actually exists and has seeded us with the desire to seek after Him. No, this must be an evolutionary vestige. A most unfortunate mutation in that there is no selective advantage in whiling away your time shaping idols and attending to endless rituals while your competition gathers their food and sharpens their flint.
Universists share the following five principles:

I. The most important thing is the search for meaning and purpose, as in relationships and love, understanding and knowledge, experiences and emotions, or elsewhere.
"Searching" is good, but finding is prohibited (more on this later).
II. There is no absolute Truth that applies to all people; ultimate knowledge of the nature of existence cannot be communicated, it can only be reasoned or experienced personally. The natural state of most individuals is uncertainty, motivating curiosity, openmindedness and appreciation for the experiences and thought of other beings.
This has the unmistakable smell of a truth claim. In fact, there's quite a bit of metaphysical groundwork lain by them in order to define what is and is not a Universist — "doctrine," if you will. Additionally, this claim of the "natural state" of individuals being "uncertainty" seems to fly in the face of their concession that humanity has a "religious impulse." This impulse seems to express itself globally in religions that are incorrigibly dogmatic, which is the very thing they are seeking to flee with their own dogma.
III. Morality depends on individual circumstances and relationships. Any action's ultimate rightness or wrongness can only be determined by those involved in the action. Good and Evil are ideas that can be useful, but are inaccurate if used to describe the nature of the universe.
Of course they are moral relativists; they must be without either a God to ground morality or without revelation to assist in determining what the standards might be. I wonder, though, do they believe that when I disagree with them about their ethical standards or seek to impose mine upon society that I am "wrong" or doing something "bad?" Their materials are filled with moral judgments against the intolerance of traditional religions and the perceived harms that it has done to society. They are certainly free to propose whatever organization or story that they like, but they overstep their philosophy if they propose that it is a "better" way than mine. Better according to what measure?
IV. Social structures such as governments and institutions are useful insofar as they help individuals to flourish - that is, become and remain healthy, happy and able to work toward their goals that do not interfere with the rights of other individuals to work toward their goals.
"Rights?" What the heck are rights and where did they get them? According to their ideology, rights can be only what the state grants you, since there is no Author of rights or no rights gene. But this makes no sense, because they are suggesting that government's role should be to foster the preservation of these rights. This implies that they believe that rights are objective entities that transcend temporal governments. Unfortunately, this smacks of a theistic worldview, which is tacitly rejected by this group (Deism is the nearest thing they will countenance according to their literature). This means that "rights" are merely those things which they have predetermined that they desire to possess. More power to them in lobbying the state for whatever rights they deem desirable, but they are certainly not rationally justified in claiming to have a "right" to such "rights."
V. All life is free in the universe, limited in potential only by the physical laws of nature.
If not for those pesky physical laws then our selves would be free to ascend to the very heavens (a godless one, of course). In reality, though, the entire concept of "freedom" is problematic for most of those who would be drawn to this religion. If we are merely citizens and material of the universe, then we are subject to the laws and forces which drive that universe. This article of faith, according to their model, might justifiably then read, "All life is determined, driven and limited by our biology and environment." But that wouldn't make a very "inspirational" creed, now would it?
We wanted to fix what was wrong with [traditional religion] by determining why it failed, in order to make a satisfying replacement for faith. Our conclusion was that the opposite of faith, Uncertainty itself, is the only satisfying antidote, and only when it is fully embraced and celebrated for its contribution to our daily lives and human progress as a whole.

Universism is the method, the primacy of the Search, and the solidarity in Uncertainty.
"Uncertainty" is the chief article of faith, and the act of capitalizing it is to "enshrine" it (as they admit elsewhere). But it is one thing to admit one's ignorance; it is an entirely different thing to celebrate and make a creed of ignorance and indecision. Were any Universist to come to an actual conclusion he must necessarily be branded a heretic and excommunicated from their "church" ("Meetups," I believe they call them).

It is not uncertainty which has been the contributor to humanity, it is curiosity and the desire to transcend our ignorance — to find Truth. And these things are fueled by our belief that there is real truth and knowledge to be acquired. To even claim that there could be such a thing as "human progress" implies an objective standard, and admits that we have made some movement toward that end.
A faith-based worldview means there are people who know the Truth and others who do not; this leads to division and often hate. In a Universist worldview, no one can claim knowledge to certain Truth, this means each person's efforts at the Search are respected.
But if they cannot claim certain knowledge then they cannot claim that no one has found the Truth. They have no grounds for their rejection of other religions that are based on revelation. Also, it is naïve to think that the solution to the issue of tolerance is to simply deny Truth. It seems more reasonable to say that the solution is the proper application of the concept of tolerance itself, which is the idea that we may all be civil and gracious toward one another even while we may have disagreements. The Universists are in reality just adding one more belief system into the mix of what must be tolerated within society.
It's not what you believe, it's how you believe it! The future of religion is faithless.
It's an exclusive inclusive party! BYOB (Bring Your Own Belief), so long as it's not labeled, "God Says." We'll pour 'em all in to the Hairy Buffalo barrel and drink ourselves silly to the promise of a gloriously uncertain future.

The entire creed of Universism turns out to be logically self-refuting. Might I suggest the following for their consideration:
We absolutely believe that there are no absolutes.
We are certain that uncertainty is the way.
We believe it is right to reject right and wrong.
We have faith that all other faiths are in error.
We assert our right to the enjoyment and preservation of our rights.
We practice tolerance for those who share our vision of tolerance.
We are committed to the journey without a destination, and the search without an object.
Glory be to the Mystery, the Uncertainty, and the Openmind. Amen.

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At 8/25/2005 3:13 PM, Blogger Vman said...

I am an atheist but my thoughts are too conflicted to make up my own religion. by the way, I posted some things on my site that you might agree or disagree with check it out. I love your site I read it everyday.

At 8/25/2005 5:05 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Thanks Vman! I'm so flattered that you would find my site interesting, being on the "outside" of my normal audience. Perhaps you'll disagree with much of what I write, but at least you'll get a sense that Christianity is not a blatantly non-rational belief system.

I'll be over to add a comment or two to your site pretty soon. I noticed you had some posts that just begged for some pushback.

At 8/26/2005 2:41 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...

The universist movement sounds a lot like the Unitarian Universalist movement. The Unitarian Universalists also think of themselves as a rational religion, but I have found them to be among the most irrational people to try to reason with--often outright denying the universal validity of logic.

At 8/26/2005 10:54 AM, Blogger Paul said...

They exclude the Unitarians because they are too inclusive of the faith-based religions, which they dispise. The Universists like to think of themselves as more reason-oriented. They hold the mistaken assumption (shared even by many modern Christians) that "faith" is all about believing something in spite of the evidence, simply because some book or authority says it's true.

I haven't yet personally run up against a Unitarian, but I've interacted with many pluralistic types that share similar views with them, e.g., Wiccans, Liberal Christians, New Agers, etc. It really is very difficult to dialog with them because of their incorrigible anti-rational mind-set. But this is necessary for them if they wish to sustain their confused belief systems. Once you start to connect the dots between their isolated yet contradictory beliefs they tend to feel threatened, or feel like you are being unkind to them, and they flee the encounter. I find pure atheists to be friendlier toward logic and lively debate than those who attempt to blend the world's religions together or craft their own belief system for themselves.

I think the Universists would accept the universality of logic, but I'm not sure on what grounds they would support that claim. Probably only because it is "useful" to think it is true. If they couldn't depend on the objectivity of logic then their grounds for imagining themselves to be "logical" is undone.

At 8/27/2005 11:07 PM, Blogger Will said...

The creed is great. It seems a lot of these observations apply to the popular postmodernist.

At 9/14/2005 7:37 PM, Anonymous Ron said...

You said: "Rights?" What the heck are rights and where did they get them? "

Who gave the church the right to own slaves, right to burn heretics, etc? Rights aren't given, nor do they come from anywhere.

Rights are subject to sociological scrutiny and should be non infringing upon others well being. Your right to swing your wrist begins where my nose begins...thats a cryptic definition of right if you choose it.

Good luck with the secong coming!

At 9/14/2005 8:21 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Thanks for posting, Ron, but this is neither a reply to my point nor a relevant critique of the veracity of Christianity. It is simply a commentary on your understanding of what "Christians" have allegedly done, and it is your personal opinion on what rights ought to entail: the minimalist ethic.

(The church owning slaves? Never heard the accusation put quite like that.)

At 9/15/2005 9:09 AM, Anonymous atheistxtian said...

Your critique of Universism would be somewhat more palatable if there was little less animosity, towards Universism, exibited by you. Were you offended by Universism?

At 9/15/2005 11:49 AM, Blogger Tim said...

I think the Universists should have added that all people are Universists (-:

Because, when all is said and done, each person really makes his or her own religion. Many opt for a pre-packaged faith, but, ultimately, you chose the one that is closest to your own beliefs. And even then, you fine tune minor aspects that aren't quite to your liking. I think the Universists are just more openly honest about this aspect of faith.

If one was honest about there being a billion plus of this religion, and a billion plus of that religion, you'd find that many who claim to adhere to a faith in questionaires, really don't follow "the truth" all that closely. Numbers get small real quick. Universists acknowledge that we don't have any hard and fast facts on the absolutes of truth, and this is something that the majority of people already realize.

At 9/15/2005 12:17 PM, Anonymous jyeager said...

Here's a comment for Ron:

If: "Rights are subject to sociological scrutiny..." (note that I assume you are saying that society determines and defines rights) then YOU are not a Universist.

Note: Universist principle #3:
"Morality depends on individual circumstances and relationships. Any action's ultimate rightness or wrongness can only be determined by those involved in the action. Good and Evil are ideas that can be useful, but are inaccurate if used to describe the nature of the universe."

So 'rights' are defined by the individual! I have decided that you don't have the right to post your opinion here! (I say with gentle sarcasm). In fact you don't have the right to hold that opinion.
That's an argumentum ad absurdum that proves the unworkability of the Universist philosophy.

At 9/15/2005 12:49 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Fair enough, atheistxtian, as long as you don't confuse palatable with accurate. I wasn't really writing to the Universists with that post, so I wasn't on my best behavior ;-) (I should have known it would eventually be found though.) And an exercise in logical deconstruction like this would probably feel cold no matter how softly I tried to frame it. It was really the ideas that were the object of my focus here, not the people involved. I'm sure there are very many pleasant people involved in this movement/religion, and in comparison to some of the other kinds of positions I've seen taken by non-religious types, some of those advocated by the Universists are a refreshing change.

And, yes, I was a bit offended by some of the statements I saw on the Universist's website. Not that there was so much of a conscious intention to bash my position, just that the ideas being advocated had certain implications. How should I take the notions that my belief-system is a "dangerous thought process," or that I foster "division and hate," or the idea that the grounding for my beliefs is non-rational? You must understand that since I believe that Christianity is truth, and a paramount one at that, any advocacy for something contrary must be taken very seriously. It would be like a doctor trying to bring real healing practices to an African tribe, and he is opposed by the Shamans. Or perhaps something like how Richard Dawkins feels about us progress-stifling Intelligent Design advocates.

Perhaps I am all washed up in my beliefs, but perhaps you are too, and if so, this makes my comments far less ungracious and more in the neighborhood of poignant.

At 9/15/2005 2:33 PM, Blogger The Very Irreverand Bill Baker said...

I am a Universist whom is agnostic w/leanings towards{at various times back and forth} Deistic,Pantheistic,PanenDeistic thought.

I wanted to invite you to come on down to the The forum of the Universists sister "faithless community" site.
More specifically there is a thread going on about your blog here and your thoughts on the Universist Movement; I'd like to invite you come on down and chat w/us all about this stuff{if ye will}.
here is a direct link to the thread on your blog:

If the link don't wok then come on down to the forums as a whole and go to the forum "Universist Movement" and to the thread- "Lost in the Fog; Christian Blog".

Have a nice day.

In Reason:
Bill "Iconoclastithon" Baker

At 9/15/2005 5:25 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Tim, you've made some good points that I can get onboard with. Only a small subset of the members of each religion really holds to the core beliefs of that system. Most people either radically rework some preferred faith tradition to suit their sensibilities or they step out on their own and assemble something palatable from the cafeteria of world religions and metaphysical views. According to the Christian model, this is what's known as "idolatry." Our scriptures claim that we are to take God and the real world as they are and not as we'd like them to be. This seems perfectly reasonable to me. If there is Truth, it is something independent from my contingent self, and if I have an authentic interest in pursuing it, that it might occasionally cut against the grain of my own preferences and proclivities.

It's good to respect the limitations of our own omniscience, but the manner in which Universism celebrates its uncertainty seems a bit abortive to me. Also, I have to agree with you that we'd be almost completely in the dark regarding metaphysical matters if there either were no God or if He did not bother to interact with us. But the difference is that I believe He has spoken, and so we can be sure about certain very important things. The debate then becomes one not of blind metaphysical speculation but of physical and historical investigation, since God has punched through the fabric of space and time to perform works in this world.

I may be wrong, but I've got good enough justifications for my belief that I think I'm warranted in taking that next step we call "faith." Perhaps I'll find out tomorrow that I'm in error, but the trend so far has been nothing but further confirmation that I've entered the right camp.

At 9/15/2005 10:23 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Irreverand Bill,

Would generally love to come on over and chat (I've haunted many a messageboard in my day), but a few things are standing in the way.

1) The atmosphere is less than inviting. As Tzombo says, "Haha, we should invite this guy here, we'll eat him alive."

2) I don't see any real substantive challenges to what I've said so far, though helmespc has a reasonable concern as to whether my points apply to the deistic/pantheistic faction. Ggabriel has given it a go, but he's completely missed the point of much of what I've said.

3) I am not optimistic that it would be productive. Often these sessions are enjoyable for me but I generally spend most of my time clearing up misconceptions about historical Christianity and chasing rabbit trails. My mind is not likely to be changed on any topic of significance to you folks, and the best I'm likely to do is to make you aware that Christianity is not as mindless as you may once have believed.

4) I have a schedule conflict over the next several days.

Your gracious invitation is much appreciated though.

At 9/16/2005 8:10 AM, Anonymous atheistxtian said...

Paul, we contend that the only reason you exercise faith in, and worship, the biblegod and xianity is because of the threat of hell, are we wrong?

At 9/16/2005 10:33 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Well, that's a theory. Non-Christians often seem to have this curious compulsion to engage in psychological speculation at the expense of questions over the veracity of their beliefs. As C.S. Lewis points out, it must first be established that someone is mistaken before it is meaningful to ask why he is mistaken. Your claim comes either with the assumption that the God of Christianity is a fiction and the boogeyman of hell is the psychosis which drives me, or that the Judgment is real but that hell shouldn't be the motivation for reverence toward my Creator. If the former, then the task of Christian apologetics emerges. If the latter, then it is a sort of moot point, since debating God's economy will change nothing in the end, though this is an interesting philosophical discussion nonetheless.

Tell me, do you look both ways before you cross the street merely because you fear the traffic? Or, a better analogy yet, do you give an honest day's work merely because you fear getting fired? Getting fired is a genuine threat, and all who have no regard for (or belief in) their employer ought to suffer consequences, but I think most people, ideally, work for the love of the career and, at worst, for the paycheck.

At 9/16/2005 5:48 PM, Anonymous naturalist said...

There are worst ways to waste time than use your nights to justify Christianity by being an apologist but it is still a waste of energy trying to justify a subjective belief system.

There are 1000's of ways to find great purpose and "moral" direction in life without associating it with a mythtical saviour.

In fact it is absolutist dogmatic beliefs such as Christianity that is holding back humanity from resolving many of it's problems. Religion is about seperation and divisiveness. It is part of the problem and not the solution.

We are still an immature species trying to make sense out of things by applying supernatural explantions for our life and the universe.

Paul, if you wish to have purpose, do something positive and practical by thinking objectively, protecting the environment, doing good for others and stop being so concerned about whether you are "saved" and living for the "lord." by spreading the gospel.

Life is about the now and after over 6000 years it's way past time for us to grow up and put aside these myths and ludicrous religious stories.

Love, awe and reverence for all of life is not the exclusive domain of the religious.

Honestly Paul, how likely is it that in the midst of a incomprehensibly large universe(15 billion light years across) that "the absolute truth" would show up only on one small speck of matter called Earth.

You could break those archaic chains by starting to think beyond the self-imposed limits that religion has predicated as true.

The universe is much larger than one subjective belief system called Christianity.

Some last questions Paul...Why is it so important to you that there is an absolute truth? Why do rights,ethics and good works have to originate from an invisble higher power? (humans have bled and fought many centuries to establish our rights and I am grateful for their efforts)

At 9/16/2005 7:33 PM, Blogger Paul said...


I'd be interested in answering this in some detail, though it's not really a direct response to my original post (though it is more of a go than I've seen so far, even on the messageboard [though it is not anything I have not encountered before, or once believed myself to some extent]). However, I'll be out-of-pocket for the next several days. In the meantime, my other readers are welcome to jump in if they are so inclined.

First, please share with me if you are a metaphysical "naturalist" so that I know how I should personalize my response. Do you believe that there are any forces or entities that transcend our usual understanding of nature and the laws of physics? Do you believe that there is anything outside of the cosmos, whether personally involved with us or not?

At 9/16/2005 9:06 PM, Anonymous naturalist said...

Hi Paul,

Thanks for the reply. I am a "biological naturalist" (not professionally)who is aware and learning about the processes that shaped the physical universe and life forms that we know of. For most of my 53 years I was a "metaphysical" naturalist if you will that believed in a divine controller of everything but now I have become more of a agnostic/deist if there is such a term!

I am open to the possibility that there may be a life force behind all we see but it must be proved by a rational process, not through personal faith or the blind acceptance of the unerrant efficacy of a divine text.

Just because there are very complex processes and parts of the cell that looked designed, just saying they are is no proof.

I am being sarcastic here but do Intelligent Designers believe that they will find a signature left by a creator a manufacturers label,"made by God"

If a god exists that is personnaly involved with us I would say it would be closer to would be us who are the gods who direct our own lives and societies. That of course is heresy to Christians but it makes more sense to me than assigning credit or blame to a divine being. It means we must accept personal responsibility for our lives, our culture, our planet, what we have done and what still needs to be accomplished.

I notice your interest in astronomy and that subject and cosmology is what helped expand my thinking about how limited our perspective is on earth and that it would be incredibly ignorant and hubris to state that we had all truth in one corner of the universe and it was Christianity to boot!

Uncertainity does not scare me because I realize that on a physical level I am interconnected part of a complex universe and one day the atoms and molecules of me and my loved ones will be part of someone or something else and life will go on...

As Paul from the Bible said we "look through a glass darkly" and we know so little that there is to be known. Humans can be incredibly good or evil but that does not mean we are blessed or damned, just learning and growing as we evolve culturally.

At 9/16/2005 9:28 PM, Anonymous naturalist said...

One more comment Paul,

If there is a God that is behind it all, to me it would have to be incredibly more sophisticated than the one described in religious texts.

I cannot imagine one who is portrayed as so flawed,capricious and contradictory "designing" such a complex, elegant universe. The ludicrous Bibical descriptions would be a gross insult to a God so "intelligent".

At 9/19/2005 1:35 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...


Since Paul said, "my other readers are welcome to jump in if they are so inclined," I became inclined. You raise too many issues to address in the comment section of a blog, but I wanted to get a few clarifications from you about some things.

First, you referred to Christianity as a "subjective belief system." I'm not sure what you mean by that, but it seems that it can be taken in one of two ways. On the one hand, you may mean it's subjective in the sense that subjects believe it. If so, then all beliefs are subjective, since they are all held by subjects. If that's what you mean, then it seems like a banal observation, and I don't see why it would be a waste of time for somebody to make arguments to justify what they believe. That is, unless you think we should all be irrational and believe things for no reason at all.

If you mean Christianity is subjective in the sense that it makes subjective (rather than objective) claims, then you're just mistaken about the kind of claims Christianity makes. The claims of Christianity are meant to describe the way the world really is. Claims like "There is a God," and "Jesus was crucified by the Romans in the first century," are either true or not true depending on whether or not they correspond with reality. That makes them objective claims.

Christianity may be mistaken in the claims it makes, but they are at least objective claims. If they were subjective claims, I would completely agree with you that it would be a waste of time for anybody to try to justify those beliefs. That would be like trying to prove that ice cream tastes good. The claim that "Ice cream tastes good" is a subject claim, since it depends on the subjective preferences of the person who believes it. But whether there's a God (in the Christianity understanding) or whether Jesus was really crucified by the Romans in the first century, doesn't depend on the subjective preferences of anybody. It's either true or it's not true, regardless of what anybody believes. Because of that, it makes all the sense in the world for people to explore whatever evidence or arguments there are to justify those claims.

Well, I had more to say, but I don't want to end up writing a marathon post. I'll see what your reaction is to this, first. If you could just clarify what you mean by saying Christianity is a subjective belief system, that would help.


At 9/19/2005 10:00 PM, Anonymous naturalist said...

Thanks Sam for your response,

A man named Jesus may have been crucified by the Romans as you say, but the belief that he was the son of God and that he is a deity called God are subjective beliefs that are not verifiable.

They are depend only on the faith of the person or persons expounding those beliefs.

They may be true for you personally but not a universal truth which can be tested and shown by obseravtion, experimentation or physical proof.

Th real world is what we see, experience with our senses and through reason. It is what science has revealed to us through centuries of experimentation and logic.

Religious belief does not rely on reason and verifiable facts. It relies on faith in the unseen and the writings of a old text supposely divinely inspired.

These writings are either true,partially true or false,but other than some archeological sites that testify to the settings where much of the Bible took place there is no physical evidence, no objective evidence(as yet) of a God that exists in the universe.

Therefore I say again that you can try to justify your beliefs till the Sun finally burns out but you are only telling others what you believe personally and subjectively through feelings and emotions not dispassionate facts and verifiable data.

By the way I am not an atheist.

At 9/19/2005 11:59 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...


Just to make sure I understand what you mean by "subjective belief," let me mirror back to you what I think you're saying, and you tell me if I've got it right.

It sounds like what you're saying is that a subjective belief is a belief in something that can't be verified by observation, experimentation, physical proof, our senses, reason, and logic.

Is that right?


At 9/20/2005 7:43 AM, Anonymous naturalist said...

Hi Sam,

Yes that is correct.

Here are two definitions from the Encarta dictionary that I think also help explain what I mean by subjective:

...based on somebody's opinion or feelings rather than on facts or evidence.

...perceptions existing only in the mind and not independent of it.

Sam, I know that many Christians have sincere beliefs and principles
and good motivations to help others but if you look at the larger universe, religious belief is predicated on many assumptions that the word written in one book take precedent over everything else that our species has discovered, written about, fought and died for,created societies and laws to bring us to this point.

The Bible does have many "pearls of wisdom" in it but when it is taken as the only valid piece of writing that has substance and meaning then we become blinded and fanatical and the quest for seeking knowledge stops.

Also on a much larger scale Christianity is saying that we should believe that one religion among all other beliefs over thousands of years only has validity. We only know one minute part of the universe where we exist, how can we possibly know that we have the whole objective truth when we know so little compared to what could be known.

That doesn't mean we are nihilists without purpose and values but we don't have to rely on some supernatural way to give us that purpose. Part of that purpose is the journey of learning and seeking knowledge, to seek understanding of how life exists and works but not get carried away with dogma in believing we have found the ultimate answers, because the beauty of scientific thinking is that it is open ended and is subject to revision when more data comes available.


At 9/20/2005 8:58 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...


I don't mean to make it seem that I'm ignoring you. I'm trying to stay focused on one issue at a time. Right now, the issue is what you mean by "subjective beliefs." When we get this out of the way, I'll move on to something else.

The first dictionary definition you gave makes a false dichotomy between "opinion" and "facts or evidence." Opinions are most often BASED on facts and evidence.

The second definition is what I take "subjective" to mean. That's why I say Christianity is not a subjective belief. Statements like "Ice cream tastes good" refer only to the mind, not to the ice cream "out there." Ice cream, by itself, tastes neither good nor bad. It only tastes good to somebody, and it may taste bad to somebody else. The experience of a good tastes only exists in the mind.

However, statements like "God exists" and "Jesus is the son of God" refer to things outside the mind. At worst, these claims are false, because they fail to correspond to reality. But they are not subjective, because they do not refer merely to what's going on in the mind.

But anyway, our argument here is semantical. Since I understand how you are using the word, I have some more questions.

First, do you think it can be rational to believe something that cannot be verified by observation, experimentation, physical proof, our senses, reason, or logic?

At 9/20/2005 1:28 PM, Anonymous naturalist said...

No, ephphatha, I do not think it is rational, because I desire empirical proof of my beliefs.

Sory about over-whelming this blog which so much verbiage. I will try to just answer your germane questions one at a time


At 9/20/2005 2:04 PM, Anonymous jyeager said...

Naturalist, this is where Sam says "check mate" because you have just made a statement that is self-refuting.
What you are advocating is an epistimological framework called Empiricism. The problem is that you can never arrive at a defense for empiricism via empirical means.
Sam of course will be a bit more tactful about it. :)

Naturalist, I just now noticed the comments here and read your initial discourse against Christianity. I was struck by an irony. You were making a post-modern argument for rationalism. The two frameworks are incompatible. :)

Sam is entirely right about your basic underlying problem with Christianity. You mistake the types of claims it makes. I understand where this misunderstanding comes from. You probably got it from christians themselves, many of whom make the same mistake (borne out of postmodernism). However, the truth, as Sam is getting at, is that Christianity actually makes truth claims. Your argument shouldn't be that it's an irrational or subjective system of thought...rather it should be that it's false. We've got actual evidence that we have analyzed to come to the conclusion that Christianity is true.

At 9/20/2005 2:31 PM, Blogger Paul said...


Sam has insightfully put his finger on one of the chief stumbling blocks I might have in dialoging with you: the nature of truth claims. The belief in Christianity is not a preference statement (a subjective claim); it is the affirmation of an objective truth claim. We believe that Jesus really rose from the dead (etc.), but like any objective claim it could in theory be false. It is fellows like John Dominic Crossan, of Jesus Seminar fame, who treat Christianity like a subjective preference. This is because he does not believe in the miraculous elements of the Bible (it's questionable whether he even believes in God), but he calls himself a Christian merely because he likes its stories and moral teachings.

Technically, you do not really mean that Christianity is a subjective belief; you simply think that we believe something that is either impossible to prove to your satisfaction or that you simply think it is false. If we cannot come to terms with what Christianity is claiming for itself, then we will simply be talking past each other.

The bottom line is really whether or not God has acted in the world and done those things spoken of in Scripture. And since Jesus was presumably a real character in space and time, we can evaluate these things in the same way we might when talking about Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. But by the measure you seem to be laying out for truth assessment, I'm not sure you can even accept the historicity of Caesar because you cannot see, touch, taste, and smell Him. If you are willing to accept history as a valid field of study and source of truth, then you will need to define for us what the difference is between investigating the truths surrounding someone like Augustus Caesar and investigating Jesus, who was born during his reign.

Additionally, I'm sure yeager is right about where Sam was going with his questions. If you want to be an empiricist, you will have to be content with the self-refuting fact that you cannot prove that empiricism is rational by empirical means (it cannot pass its own truth test). We are not saying that things like evidences and observations are invalid, just that there is a lot more to exploring the physical and metaphysical world than that. For instance, there are foundational (or "properly basic") beliefs to consider and our own presuppositions. I'm sure that you will be baring your own presuppositions for us when you answer the question about history and the difference between Caesar and Jesus.

At 9/20/2005 5:13 PM, Anonymous naturalist said...

I acknowledge that Jesus and Caesar were historical figures who existed since so many witnesses stated this by observation.

However there is a big difference in context about who these individuals were, especially who Jesus represents to you today.

I will state plainly I do not think that Jesus was the Son of God or God in the flesh. I think these stories were embleshiments or perhaps wishful thinking to elevate a man to the role of a saviour, whatever...

You may be able to find artifacts or writings of Jesus's existence but only on faith, not on indisputable evidence can you say that he performed miracles, rose from the dead and proclaim that he is fact the son of God or God himself.

Your beliefs may be a objective assertions of the "truth" as you see it but that doesn't make it a universal truth for everybody which can be empirically demonstrated or proved through experiment or data. It is a subjective belief that you presuppose to be objective truth.

Just because you or millions of others believe something to be true doesn't make it so.

Evidence for your belief at least to me needs to rely on more than a feeling you have in your heart that it is so. There is much about our universe that is unknown and perhaps problematic but for me I have realized that the best way we have today is through a rational scientific approach and not by staying mired in archaic religious explanations about existence and purposeful control by a deity

I think we are in two different worldviews that are unfortuately not compatable which is sad because I feel that the compassion and human aspects of Christianity are worthwhile

Personaly I have felt much freedom and clarity in my thinking and a more positive ethical direction as I have walked away from the faith world. I think humas are capable of much more growth and maturity than religious belief grants us.

Sorry again to take up so much space in my reply...I have a hard time being succient and brief.

Thanks Paul,Sam and Yeagar

At 9/20/2005 7:37 PM, Anonymous jyeager said...

Naturalist, My kingdom for a discussion board!

I'd like to point out, kindly, that you once again have made the same mistake. "Evidence for your belief...needs to rely on more than a feeling you have in your heart that it is so". How many times do we need to assure you that we have objective, rational reasons for believing as we do? We are not the mistaken variety of people who belief without rational cause.
We belive in the correspondance theory of truth. Truth is that which corresponds to reality. Christianity is true for ALL people everywhere...objectively so. Of course, you disagree which is great. We could talk about some of those rational reasons if you'd like.

At 9/20/2005 9:23 PM, Anonymous naturalist said...

Thanks Jyeager,

But I believe we see the world in two different ways and probably must just agree to disagree.

No disrespect but I have been where you are and thankfully have moved past that stage.

I do wish you, Paul and Sam the best though.


At 9/20/2005 10:35 PM, Blogger Paul said...


You seem to be arguing against a brand of Christianity that we do not hold, and which it can easily be demonstrated that Scripture does not teach. Are you here to tell us what Christians believe? If I thought it was all a slathered icing of "blind faith" over a layer-cake of myth and metaphor, then I would be running from the church too. Perhaps you've had some bad exposure to Christianity that drove you away. I did too, but eventually I discovered it was just bad theology, not a fundamentally wrong worldview.

The bottom line is that we think this is real stuff and you do not. If it is true, then so many of your statements become meaningless, like you thinking you've gone off into a more "ethical direction," which would be foolishness if you were simply following your own whimsies at the expense of your creator's design. But if Christianity is a fiction, then we are just deluded and wrong, not being "subjective." You are confusing philosophical categories by push this question out of the objective realm and into the subjective. This isn't an "I think strawberry ice cream tastes good" type of claim; it is an "I think ice cream is made of milk and sugar type claim."

At 9/21/2005 2:03 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...


I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, "But I believe we see the world in two different ways," but I don’t think we necessarily have to "just agree to disagree." I think there is room for further discussion. I suspected from the beginning that our differences were in our fundamental assumptions about reality and epistemology. The purpose of my questions was to figure out exactly what those differences were. If you want to agree to disagree by dropping the subject, that's fine with me, but if not, I do have more things to say and questions to ask.

Right now, it looks like one of our major differences is in epistemology. I think there are some things we can rationally believe without empirical proof. I want to demonstrate that by showing your own view to be self-refuting. A self-refuting claim is a claim that fails to meet its own standard for being true or rational to believe. For example, if I said, "All statements over five words long are false," then the statement is self-refuting, because the statement itself is over five words long.

Your statement is self-refuting in a more subtle way. You said that it is not rational to believe anything without empirical proof. The question we need to ask is if it is rational to believe your assertion. By the criteria for rationality you've specified, we should expect there to be empirical proof for your assertion. Is there any empirical proof that it is not rational to believe anything without empirical proof? If not, then we must reject your assertion. It's self-refuting.

But, like I said, your statement is self-refuting in a more subtle way. Empirical proof, to you, means verification by observation, experimentation, physical proof, our senses, reason, or logic.

Let's take our senses for example. If I see a green jeep with my own eyes, I can touch it with my hands, and I can smell it with my nose, and I can hear it with my ears, then I'm rational in believing that there's a green jeep in front of me, right? All of these methods of knowing about the green jeep involve my senses.

But before my senses can tell me anything at all, I first have to know something else which my senses do not tell me. I have to first know that my senses are giving me true information about the world. I have to know that I'm not dreaming, I'm not a brain in a vat, I'm not hooked up to the matrix, or I'm not deceived in some other way. You see, by themselves, my nose, eyes, ears, and skin tell me nothing. They are only instruments with which I perceive the external world. When they detect light, vibration, etc., they send a signal to my brain, and my brain creates a mental image in my mind. All sensory perceptions, then, take place in the mind. If all sensory experience takes place in the mind, how do I know anything at all (including the green jeep) exists outside of my mind? The only way I can know that is by assuming that my senses are giving me true information about the world.

No conclusion can be more certain than the premises upon which it is based. According to your criteria of rationality, it is not rational to believe that my senses are giving me true information about the world. It's impossible to prove that they are by any impirical means. If it's not rational to believe our senses are giving us true information about the world, then it's not rational to base our knowledge of the external world on our senses. That's why strict empiricism is self-refuting.

The same is true with the other the other forms of empirical verification you mentioned. Take the laws of logic for example. The laws of logic are necessary to prove anything. But how are they proved? Since they are necessary for any proof, we must rely on logic to prove logic. But if we rely on logic to prove logic, our reasoning is circular. So logic cannot be proved at all by any means. Yet it seems that we can know the laws of logic with absolute certainty. I know with absolute certainty that if two statements contradict each other, then they cannot both be true at the same time and in the same sense. And yet no empirical verification for the law of non-contradiction exists. By your own criteria for rationality, it is not rational to believe in logic.

Another example is experimentation, which depends on the uniformity of nature. David Hume demonstrated in a couple of his books that the uniformity of nature is impossible to prove, which makes it irrational on your view. If we are not rational in believing in the uniformity of nature, then neither rare we rational in believing anything based on experimentation.

J.P. Moreland, in one of his books (I think it was Love Your God With All Your Mind) writes about the differences between methodism and particularism. A methodist (not the religious denomination) is somebody who thinks that before you can know anything, you first have to have a method by which you know it. In your case, that method would be empirical verification. But methodism falls victim to the iterative skeptic. An iterative skeptic is somebody who asks, "How do you know that?" after everything you say. Every time you make some claim you think is rational to make, the iterative skeptic asks you to justify your statement. In your case, you'd have to give some kind of empirical justification. But then every time you base one statement on another, he wants you to prove the other statement as well.

There are only two ways to free yourself from the iterative skeptic--one of which is impossible. The impossible way is to go into an infinite regress and give an infinite number of empirical proofs. The other way is to adopt particularism. Particularists differ from methodists in that while methodists begin with a method and then arrive at items of knowledge, particularists begin with particular cases of knowledge, then work out a method by which to gain more knowledge.

In my case, I begin with very basic items of knowledge that it seems quite rational to believe in spite of the fact that they can't be proved. I begin with my knowledge that my senses are giving me true information about the world, that logic is universally valid, that the future will resemble the past, etc. With these items of knowledge, I am able to learn many other things by empirical verification.

My whole point is that if it is rational to believe anything at all, then there must be some things it is rational to believe that can’t be proved by any means, empirical or otherwise.

My next question to you is this: If you still say that it is not rational to believe anything that cannot be empirically verified, then what rational justification is there to believe in the assumptions of empirical verification (i.e. your senses, experimentation, the laws of logic, etc.)?

Again, if you want to just agree to disagree and drop the subject, I'm okay with that.


At 9/21/2005 2:32 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...


I was just reading your comments on the thread at the Universist site, and I want to apologize to you if we're making you feel ganged up on. Honestly, the reason we're giving you so much attention is because of all the posts Paul has gotten on this blog entry, yours has been the most engaging. You are actually dealing with the issues, and not just taking pot shots and running off. I appreciate that. If you decide to back out of this discussion, you can do so with your ego in tact, because I don't think anybody will think you backed out because you couldn't hold your own in a debate. I only jumped in, because Paul invited his readers, and because I thought after reading your comments that there was room for discussion and some progress could be made, even if all we accomplished was understanding each other a little better.


At 9/21/2005 6:36 AM, Anonymous naturalist said...

Sam and Paul,

Thanks for the kind comments and very intelligent and articulate discussion of logic and rationality etc.

Unfortuately The "real world" of work though forces me to step aside for a while. Let me ponder about these points and I will try to respond soon.

I do understand somewhat where you are coming about circular reasoning.

Thanks again for your insightful, thoughtful writings.

At 9/21/2005 8:38 PM, Blogger Paul said...


Thanks for fleshing out that point. And you are always welcome to jump in whenever you see value to add.

I think "naturalist" would probably be willing to accept many of our epistemological presuppositions, but I'm not sure he has the desire to work through why that is so. I think that some headway might be made if a more casual conversation ensued that explored the nature of historical investigation and identified what made the Biblical story of Jesus different. Perhaps he's not familiar with the robust case for the integrity of the NT accounts, but I would predict that the entire problem is that it contains those pesky miracles. God seems to be in a no-win situation: He can't be believed if He does miracles and He can't be believed if He doesn't.


Let me ask you a question (if you eventually have the time). Let's pretend that God really did incarnate into a human body some years back, and He did this (rather than just showing up uninvited for every human in history) because He had something He wanted done that could only be accomplished at a single point in space/time. Let's say that this involved the most remarkable miracles and claims about Himself, which would only be expected if He were indeed God. Now, let's say that this was witnessed by many people who were so convinced and impressed that they felt compelled to write about it and tell anyone who would listen. My question to you is this: Is there any possible way that the records of such an event could pass your filter of credulity or would such a divine visitation simply be a waste of God's time as far as you are concerned?

At 9/21/2005 11:43 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Paul, my next step in talking to naturalist was going to be to ask him what he meant by "true for you," and then explore the nature of truth, the difference between objective and subjective truth, etc. It seemed to me that these more basic issues need to be addressed before we can begin to argue that Christianity is true in the objective sense. I still feel like there are some basic worldview issues that need to be addressed, and I agree that the issue of miracles and what counts as evidence is among those issues.


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