Consciousness Podcast

I have made my debut appearance on a podcast, joining Dale Glover and Robert L. White on Dale’s “Real Seeker Ministries” podcast. Dale was the co-host of Skeptics and Seekers and has since moved on to do his own thing, and Robert has a blog and podcast focused primarily on presenting his epistemology (I also recently interacted with Robert regarding a particular miracle claim that he had raised when he was previously on Dale’s show).

The topic of discussion was consciousness. We covered a lot of ground and the flow was largely organized around various arguments that Dale had previously presented for and against dualism and physicalism. Having now listened back to the podcast, I am reasonably content with my contribution even though the real-time nature of the format presented a new challenge for me. It was a pleasant discussion and I’ll be interested to hear whether there are any follow-up thoughts or questions from those who manage to make it through the two and half hours. Enjoy!

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Biblical studies podcasts

These days there is a wealth of knowledge to be passively acquired by listening to various podcasts. I recently added a few more to my rotation and upon surveying the collection I felt like the subset of podcasts that deal with Biblical studies and related topics are worth highlighting. For whatever reason I find the topic fascinating and enjoy discovering all the insights that you would never hear coming from the pulpit. So without further ado…

  • Amatuer Exegesis – “A podcast exploring the most read and least understood anthology the world has ever known”. Excellent series by The Amatuer Exegete that focuses on uncovering what the Biblical author’s really intended with their texts. The first season just completed.
  • New Testament Review – A very informative and well done podcast in which two Duke PhD candidates review influential New Testament scholarship. I only discovered this a few weeks ago and this has constituted the entirety of my podcast listening since then as I have been catching up on the full back catalog.
  • NT Pod – Podcast by Duke professor Mark Goodacre about the New Testament and Christian origins. There isn’t a consistent release schedule with this, but there’s a substantial back catalog you can work through.
  • Bart Ehrman Blog Podcast – Weekly readings from Bart Ehrman’s blog. Each episode reads one new post and one post from several years ago, so even if you subscribe to the blog this is still valuable as a way to learn about things that were covered in the past.
  • The ReligionProf Podcast – Podcast by Butler professor and prolific Patheos blogger James McGrath covering “the Bible, science fiction, education, music, and pretty much anything else that happens to grab his surprisingly short attention span”.
  • Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean – Philip Harland’s podcast, primarily focusing on Christian origins and the relationship between early Christianity and other religions. I’ve posted on this before and I suspect there won’t be anything new posted to this series (it’s been many years) but the back catalog is still well worth a listen if you haven’t caught it before.

Enjoy! Please also let me know if you have any additional suggestions. I’m constantly struggling to keep up with my podcast queue, but still also always on the lookout for new ways to expand my mind.

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I’m still here

Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of my most recent post. That’s a benchmark I’m not particularly proud of, and I figured I better publish something to show that I’m still alive and haven’t completely abandoned the blog. I remain quite interested in the topics and discussions in the “God debate”, but I guess the kinds of inquiries that lead to posts on this blog just don’t have the same priority for me as they did in previous years. I used to routinely encounter new data, or arguments, or evidence that caught my attention and inspired me to write about it. Those kinds of revelations seem to be fewer and farther between these days, and swamped by the rest of life’s goings on. But occasionally items still do crop up that intrigue me enough to engage in some dialogue, so I figured I could put something potentially interesting in this post by recapping a few of those engagements over the past year.


Last September there was a nice exchange between Ben Watkins and Mike Almeida on Capturing Christianity about the positive arguments for atheism (see Part 1 and Part 2). I was inspired to offer my own two cents, but nothing came of that. Regardless, I think the exchange is well worth a read.


I spent a little time probing the foundations of Thomistic metaphysics with a couple bloggers that were defending that view. See here and here. I’m not sure that I’m any closer to really making sense of that perspective.


The Amatuer Exegete endorsed my interpretation of Daniel’s 70 Weeks. It was nice to receive some additional validation on that. About the same time the Skeptics and Seekers podcast did a series on messianic prophecies which included Daniel’s 70 weeks. I shared a few more thoughts there, but Dale’s comments were deleted so the conversation doesn’t really flow if you read it now.


structureoftruth was kind enough to send me the spreadsheet he used for his “Why I Can’t Be An Atheist” post. My intention was to plug in my own numbers and see what happens (teaser – I have done that) but so far I have only drafted a fraction of a post. That will probably be the next ‘real’ post on this blog.


The Scientific Christian critiqued Tim O’Neill’s response on Quora regarding the resurrection narrative, and I suggested that he was misinterpreting some of Tim’s claims. I learned a few things and I think we were able to clarify some of the claims in Tim’s article.


Eric (unklee) wrote a piece about free will that led to a rather substantial exchange in which I defended the viability of compatibilism. This ended up spilling over into a 2nd post by Eric, where the discussion reached an impasse fairly quickly – but at least I helped him fix his problem with disappearing comments! I’d be interested in hearing any outside opinions on my defense of compatibilism.


Dale, co-host of the Skeptics and Seekers podcast, published a solo series defending substance dualism, which included a modal argument that I hadn’t previously encountered. In the course of our subsequent discussion, I discovered the philosophical concepts of “transworld identity” and “counterpart theory”. What do you think is the best interpretation of modal identity?


Last but not least, Joe has been pretty active lately publishing new posts on his True and Reasonable blog. I’ve interacted with him on several of those (one of which is still an active thread – I’ll get back to you soon Joe), with the discussion largely focused on the implications of moral anti-realism.


I hope you find that something I’ve linked here was worth reading and gets you thinking. I really do want to publish more than one post a year going forward, but I’m not making any promises or setting goals in that regard. That hasn’t worked out in the past. So we’ll just see what happens. As always, please leave a comment if there’s anything you’d like to discuss.

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Conversations on naturalistic faith, and the “die for a lie” apologetic

I want do a better job of keeping the cobwebs off this blog, and I’ve decided that I don’t always need to put together elaborate, heavily researched posts to do that. As with the previous post, one simple way to keep things active is to continue sharing some of the interesting interactions that I have in response to the content that others are producing. Toward that end, here are two more recent encounters:

#1 – Naturalistic Faith

If you’re not already familiar with Randal Rauser, I recommend getting to know him. He’s a prolific writer and a thoughtful apologist who employs careful reasoning and regularly campaigns for charity toward those who believe differently – and he isn’t afraid to challenge his evangelical peers. A few weeks ago he tweeted that

Few things are as ironic as a naturalist chiding a Christian about having “faith”

and then followed up on the blog with a little further clarification. At first glance this sounds similar the Turek & Geisler “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist” line, and I would normally expect Rauser to avoid that kind of rhetoric. Furthermore, as one who sees that naturalism requires little or no “faith” (especially relative to Christianity), I decided to engage. You can read the conversation for yourself in the comment thread of the post, but here’s my TLDR version:

  • Me: Is it still ironic if naturalism is defined in terms of what we are justified to believe exists, rather than what we believe actually exists?
  • RR: Yes
  • Me: I assumed the irony was because the naturalist was asserting the non-existence of non-physical things. Are you saying that the faith is in the superiority of empiricism? I think that there is an inductive argument to be made for the reliability of empirically based ontological claims versus non-empirically based ontological claims.
  • RR: I’ll still ask what justifies that belief. You need to spell out the argument.
  • Me: OK.
    P1: the credence assigned to an ontological claim is rational to the extent that the credence is in proportion to the reliability of the claim.
    P2: ontological claims with higher degrees of empirical reliance have consistently demonstrated proportionally greater reliability, in both degree and frequency, throughout the course of history.
    P3: empirical observations are describable by natural science, so that the degree of empirical reliance for an ontological claim is proportional to the extent to which it can be described by natural sciences.
    Conclusion: it is only rational to assign credence to ontological claims in proportion to the extent to which it can be described by natural sciences.
    RR: I assume you think realism (as opposed to idealism) is justified? In what sense is it justified by way of reliability?
  • Me: Realism requires the least amount of information, so it’s more probable in Bayesian terms, and Bayesian probabilities are ultimately reliable by way of empirical confirmation.
  • RR & JT: I disagree. Idealism is simpler. There are fewer entities.
  • Me: We need to consider the total amount of information, not the number of different entity types. The perceptual information includes realism (the ontological status of our self and other entities). It takes additional information to posit that realism is an illusion, and this additional information is not included in our perception (not empirical).
  • gq: It seems we all agree that realism is “justified as being a properly basic belief”.
  • Me: My acceptance of realism over idealism may be properly basic in practice but I think it is actually probabilistic, as argued above.
  • gq: Even Bayesian justifications rely on “properly basic beliefs”. For example, the reliability of memory.
  • Me: As one who leans toward pragmatism and coherentism, I initially accept the reliability of our cognitive faculties at face value and proceed to look at the study of their reliability to recognize the conditions under which they are more and less reliable, and I use the whole body of data to inform the assessment of reliability without getting hung up on the need for a definitive, indubitable foundation. Regardless, even if we define something in there as requiring faith, I don’t see that this is sufficiently analogous to the religious articles of faith to warrant the claim of irony.

This is almost certainly biased toward doing a better job of summarizing my arguments than the arguments of my interlocutors (I’m noticing a lot more green than black), but there’s a lot more detail in the original conversation if you want to go deeper.

#2 – The “die for a lie” apologetic

Another worthwhile read is the structureoftruth blog. The entire blog is the author working through a very deliberate, thorough and accessible exposition of his belief system in a progression from the ground up. Recently he posted an argument that is similar, but not identical, to what is often known as the “die for a lie” apologetic, wherein the veracity of the resurrection is inferred from the disciples’ willingness to undergo persecution. I find that the typical framing of this argument is flawed in the sense that it creates a false dichotomy that greatly exaggerates the relationship between the adversity and the source of the belief. Since that same approach appeared to be in use here, I decided to chime in. As before, you can read the exchange for yourself, but here’s my TLDR version:

  • Me: I would suggest that it is more appropriate to frame any adversity as being tied to their group identity rather than to one particular belief.
  • SoT: Why believe the disciples faced adversity merely because of their group identity rather than because of their proclamation of the resurrection, and what is there to say that their belief in the resurrection did not become a central part of their group identity?
  • Me: I’m not suggesting that the group identity did not include a belief in the resurrection. Rather, I’m suggesting that the “die for lie” apologetic is an exaggeration. Some reasons to think that “group identity” better relates to the adversity than “resurrection witness” include: historical precedent in general, Jesus’ crucifixion as evidence of pre-existing conflict, Paul does not cite the witness as a reason for his pre-conversion activities, Acts does not focus on the witness in the relevant narratives, and Tacitus cites the eucharist as a motivating reason (though it doesn’t apply to the disciples).
  • SoT: The fact that they persisted in that group identity following Jesus’ death is best explained by their conviction in having witnessed the resurrection. It is pretty clear that this belief was a key part of their group identity after Jesus’ death.
  • Me: The point is that we can’t boil their identity, and the corresponding conflict, down to a single belief. We should acknowledge that there are many factors – belief in the resurrection included – which contributed to the continuance of the group identity and the conflict with other groups.
  • SoT: If the resurrection belief did not originate in a first-person experience, why did the disciples claim it did? Group identity as a motivating force can certainly explain some of the adversity they faced and some of their persistence in the face of that adversity, but to me it seems far from sufficient. And we have no evidence for any origin of the belief in Jesus’ resurrection aside from the first person experiences of the disciples.
  • Me: I think it’s fair to suppose that the group’s belief in the resurrection contributed to adversity (in accordance with prior comments), but it is very different to claim that this requires physical, first-person experiences.I don’t think the gospels and 1 Corinthians 15 are incompatible with accounts that did not originate with the disciples, and even if we grant that they originate with the disciples, there is still the possibility of invention, retrospective mistaken identity, confabulation, or hallucination (or a combination of these).
  • SoT: To be more precise, the inference is from the willingness of the disciples to face adversity for proclaiming that they had witnessed the resurrection, not just from the fact that they faced adversity for believing in the resurrection. I am skeptical that something less than a powerful experience could have changed the disciples and caused the early Christian movement to grow the way it did.
  • Me: I agree that there is in the tradition some evidence that the disciples claimed witness to a resurrected Jesus. However, the phrasing of the argument asserts a very specific, exclusive relationship that is too narrow and overlooks all the other factors at play, so that the relationship is exaggerated. And there was no leaving or returning to Judaism. This was Judaism. The introduction of the belief in Jesus’ resurrection was more a revitalization than a change. These followers had already committed their lives to this group identity, and the drive to maintain that identity is a potent force.
  • SoT: I don’t think it is so narrow as you say, because to me it seems the force of the other factors would be significantly reduced in the absence of the resurrection experiences, so that the other factors are not sufficient to explain what happened. In the aftermath of Jesus’ death, why would the disciples continue to think that they had the true Judaism, when their Messiah had just been killed? Their group identity was “Judaism but done right” and doubt gets cast on the “done right” part by their leader’s death.
  • Me: This group was previously organized around a message that included more than Jesus’ messiahship, which is sufficient to serve as the glue that supports the resurgence that comes with the resurrection belief. They all didn’t simply drop their heads, turn around, and go their separate ways. That said, I’m also inclined to believe that the resurrection belief was a relatively early introduction, and that if it had not been introduced, the group would probably have been a minor footnote to history – much like the Mandaeans. The resurrection belief, coupled with the parousia, renewed their eschatology without having to change their chosen one.
  • SoT: I disagree that the group identity could have been as strong if the resurrection belief came from some other source than eyewitness experience (and I remain doubtful about the plausibility of that belief arising from any other source as well). It isn’t just the belief in the resurrection, but their experience of seeing Jesus risen that motivated the disciples.
  • Me: The “die for a lie apologetic” is typically drawing on the improbability of persons facing severe adversity for the sake of something they knew to be false. The version of the argument summarized in the previous comment is claiming that it is improbable for persons to be in a state in which they are willing to experience adversity, unless they were brought in to that state through direct, first-hand experience. I find that history and psychology shows that this is not at all improbable.

There was also a bit of a side thread where I questioned how he viewed Luke-Acts placing all post-resurrection events in Jerusalem while Matthew (and the hint in Mark) place everything in Galilee, and the likelihood that John 21 is an addition. We didn’t pursue that very far, but I think that a more critical review of the text does not support the notion that there was a strong tradition underlying the post-resurrection accounts in the gospels.

As before, I tried to be fair but this is still probably biased toward more accurately summarizing my arguments. Regardless, I’m interested to hear any other thoughts on the ideas shared in these two discussions.

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On the air with moral anti-realism and the problem of evil

More than four years ago I wrote the ‘Moral anti-realism and the problem of evil’ post, primarily in response to claims that I had heard being made on the Stand to Reason radio show \ podcast. Since that time, I have kept the podcast in my rotation and have heard the same claim repeated over the years – namely, that skeptics (or moral anti-realists, to be precise) cannot legitimately raise the problem of evil because they do not have a foundation for the existence of evil. This last Tuesday, I finally got up the nerve to call in and discuss this with Greg Koukl. It went OK, but I also think I may have been too acquiescent, as I tried to keep the discussion congenial and focused on my question. In fact, I was so agreeable that he assumed that I agreed with his perspective throughout the full duration of the call!

Regardless, Greg did agree that it is legitimate for an anti-realist to raise the problem of evil on the grounds that it reveals an incoherence within the theist’s worldview (though he of course disagrees with that claim itself), and he also acknowledged that he is omitting this “nuance” when he says that anti-realists cannot raise the problem of evil. That said, I also don’t foresee that he’ll be routinely adding this point of clarity into his discourse any time soon – and I didn’t really give him reason to do so. There were several points that I could have pursued further, but didn’t:

  1. I think that he severely underestimates the degree to which presentations of the problem of evil are raising the problem as one of incoherence for the theistic position. In my experience, the central point of the objection is the issue of the incoherence – but I grant that it’s also possible that I’m the one who is misreading that, or that my experience is strongly biased toward arguments with “nuance”, as he puts it.
  2. Greg rejected any possibility of legitimately raising the problem of evil without this “nuance”. As I argued in that post four years ago, the availability of revealed Christian morality, and its overlap with our moral sense, means that the moral ontology of the person raising the problem of evil doesn’t matter – even if they are just pointing to their perception of evil in the world. If the gratuitous evil accords with the revealed Christian morality, then this is sufficient to claim that the theistic worldview appears to have a problem. I was ready to redirect the conversation in this direction the next time he gave me the floor, but then he said that the time was up and signed off. Note that I say “the theistic worldview appears to have a problem” because the theist can always propose that God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil.
  3. This view, that God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil, is the dominant view and is what Greg endorsed during the call. I agree that this is a possible reconciliation – and a barrier to the deductive problem of evil – but that is not the end of the discussion. Possible does not equal probable. In particular, this response does not eliminate the entailment that the actualized world is the best God could do. I would be interested to know whether he believes that our world actually is the best world attainable by God. As a proponent of the reformed tradition, I suspect he would. Regardless, when the issue is framed this way, the evidential problem becomes particularly stark because it is both easy to imagine ways in which God could have actualized better worlds, and difficult to comprehend that every single apparently gratuitous evil is actually necessary for some outweighing good. See my Pick Your Poison … post for a related argument.
  4. He completely disregarded the viability of subjective accounts of evil, implying that they are absurd and powerless. His contention that everybody knows that there’s evil in the world assumed that our moral intuitions in this regard necessarily include an overwhelming conviction of objectivity. I can speak from personal experience that this simply isn’t true, and I don’t understand why it is often implied that this should lead me to a cold, emotionless view of the world, or to withhold critique on the moral positions held by others – as I previously noted in my Moral Ontology post.
  5. He suggested that evolutionary accounts of morality fall flat because the mind is not physical, and because those accounts lack evidence for their claims. Though I disagree for numerous reasons (again, see my Moral Ontology post), I’m glad I didn’t try to offer any rejoinder to this at the moment. There just wasn’t room to open that can of worms and do it any justice, and I think it would have detracted from the original purpose of the call.

With all this in mind, I’m tempted to call back and use this engagement as a springboard for further conversation, but I am also interested to hear your reaction to the discussion. Take a listen to the show, where I come on at the 43:25 mark, and let me know what you think. If I were to call back, what do you think should be the focus of the discussion? It seems like point #3 could be a productive path toward understanding how he can be so often seem to be dismissive about the problem of evil, but I’m also intrigued by the possibility of opening with “when I said that I had encountered relativists who view morality as a product of evolution, I was talking about myself,” and then seeing where the conversation leads.

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A brief digression into life, entropy and cosmic teleology

I suppose I should publish something every once in a while to show that I’m still alive. So …

Why life? Why is our little speck of the universe teeming with complex things that move, reproduce and evolve, all in apparent opposition to the entropic laws that push the rest of the universe closer and closer to a dull, cold uniformity? The secular, scientifically minded among us deny that there is any cosmic teleology which places life on a pedestal, but there’s no denying that living things are quite different from everything else. Life is dynamic and proactive, in stark contrast to the passive and reactive clumps of matter which characterize everything else. Having rejected the élan vital, what is left to explain this dichotomy?

In his 2012 book “What is life?”, Addy Pross offers us ‘dynamic kinetic stability‘ to answer the titular question. Upon reading that compact and clearly articulated text, I was smitten with the idea. But I was also left wanting more. If there is an alternate form of stability that stands in opposition to the stability realized in thermodynamic decay, does it exist on its own as some sort of new law, or is there another explanation for it?

In 2016, Nick Lane published “The Vital Question” to explain the energetic underpinnings of life and it’s advance into greater complexity. I came away with the image of life as an engine for the burning of fuel, and it occurred to me that perhaps Pross’ dynamic kinetic stability is not in competition with thermodynamic decay, but is rather a duplicitous aid to the cause.

Life perpetuates states of low entropy with seemingly reckless disregard for the second law. Or so it wants you to think. Yes, the astounding ordered complexity of living things is, by definition, a low entropy state. But look at what that living thing is doing. It is consuming, transforming and destructing the world around it. Energy is being burned at a rate far beyond that which occurs in its lifeless surroundings. At the micro level, entropy has been lowered by the presence of life, but at the macro level, life is an insatiable engine for the increase in entropy as it proliferates throughout the world it inhabits – even as selection favors the growth of populations and optimizes that which, in isolation, increases entropy at the highest rates.

So is that it? Did life arise, and persist against the pull of entropy at the micro scale, because it wielded a remarkable power to accelerate thermodynamic decay at the macro scale? Could it be that entropy, the universal law of death and decay, is in fact also the cosmic teleology which has brought us life? It seems plausible to me. Of course, I could be wrong – and none of this explains how we got into that low entropy state in the first place.

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New Page: 355 Prophecies

With this post I am introducing a new page on the site – 355 Prophecies (Fulfilled in Jesus Christ?). This is a project that I started a long time ago and have now decided to make public despite the fact that it is largely incomplete. I’ve come to terms with the fact that it will probably take years to “finish”, so I might as well open it up now to the process of peer review and get started making corrections and improvements.

My intent is to continue to slowly work my way through the list and occasionally publish posts that summarize the updates. As of this writing the list is roughly one third complete, though I fully intend that the entries will be continually revised in response to feedback and/or new discoveries; so it will never really be complete. All critiques and comments are welcome.

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Finding God in the Waves (Part 2: Reconstruction)

This post is a continuation of my reflections on Mike McHargue’s recent book “Finding God in the Waves” (see Part 1). With Part 2 I am engaging with the second half of the book – titled ‘God in Science’ – which presents the ideas upon which Mike has reconstructed his faith (which he would assure you is an ongoing process without a known end point). Unlike Part 1, my aim here is not to explore points of contact with my own story but rather to offer my honest assessment of the ideas and data that are presented.

God in Science

The second half of the book starts with a chapter bearing the tongue in cheek heading of “Happily Ever After”, and we soon see that Mike’s religious experience didn’t undo the skepticism that was cultivated in the preceding years. It’s a laudable demonstration of his integrity that, despite such a powerful experience, he did not dismiss all of the data that had influenced and sustained his period of unbelief but rather sought to integrate it with this new data point.

So what might you expect to find in a book section titled ‘God in Science’? If you’re hoping for a recapitulation of the modern refrain of evidential apologetics surrounding cosmology, DNA, etc.., then Science Mike is going to disappoint. He instead embraces the mystery and finds God hidden in plain sight. The following is my attempt to briefly summarize the data that is presented to lay the groundwork for the foundational axioms that he develops throughout this section:

  1. The cosmological data doesn’t favor any one particular type of “cause” for the big bang, but science does reveal a universe that originates in a mysterious singularity which became a framework of forces and energy that sustain the observable universe with an unfailing regularity.
  2. The brain is adept at creating a model of God and when that model is abstract and assigns God a loving and peaceful nature, the time spent attending to that model will encourage focus, compassion, empathy and result in lower stress and blood pressure.
  3. There is no good evidence for the effect of intercessory prayer except as a therapeutic effect for the person doing the praying. Contemplative prayer can also yield effects similar to those established for meditative practices, which generally improves focus, willpower and compassion and results in lower stress and blood pressure.
  4. It is historically probable that Jesus of Nazareth was an actual figure who was crucified in response to his claims and following, and whose influence inspired a persistent God-centered movement that became the largest such movement in history.
  5. Therapy can be effective because the impression left on the brain by past events can be altered when those memories are revisited, and revisiting the past in a safe environment will reduce the negative emotional impressions associated with those events.
  6. Humans are an innately social species and are most psychologically healthy when immersed in a cooperative and loving social context. This immersion will also reinforce and motivate dedication to the beliefs associated with that social context.
  7. The Bible is a collection of texts that were written, assembled and copied by human hands and these texts reflect the beliefs and cultural contexts of their authors.

I think these summaries do a pretty good job of fairly outlining the modest claims that Mike puts forth, and I don’t see anything obviously wrong or misleading in them. This data is the basis for a set of axioms that then serve as the foundation for his reconstructed faith. No discussion of Finding God in the Waves would be complete without a review of those axioms, but I should first note that the axioms are all structured as propositions of the form “X is AT LEAST … EVEN IF this is all X is, …”. The intention is to define X in a minimal sense, based only on the empirically grounded data above, and that this minimal definition is sufficient to arrive at a reasonable justification for integrating X into one’s beliefs and practices.

Axiom #1 – Faith

Faith is AT LEAST a way to contextualize the human need for spirituality and find meaning in the face of mortality. EVEN IF this is all faith is, spiritual practice can be beneficial to cognition, emotional states, and culture.

The subjectivity surrounding the words “spirituality” and “meaning” make this hard to analyze. But maybe that’s part of the point – that faith is a subjectively grounded perspective, in which case I accept that this could be a viable definition if “need for” is replaced with “tendency toward”. We’re still left with a lot of ambiguity and the observation that the outworking of this tendency yields so many divergent beliefs and behaviors that it’s not obvious how to untangle the association to any benefits. Having recently read Newberg’s “How God Changes Your Brain” (one of Mike’s favorite sources) I perceived that faith was used as a synonym for a general sense of hope and optimism. This axiom might have been more concrete if it aligned better with Newberg’s definition.

Axiom #2 – God

God is AT LEAST the natural forces that created and sustain the Universe as experienced via a psychosocial model in human brains that naturally emerges from innate biases. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition for God, the pursuit of this personal, subjective experience can provide meaning, peace, and empathy for others.

There’s certainly precedent for this conception of God and though there is no way to objectively arbitrate between definitions of the divine, this clearly does not satisfy the profile for even basic theism, which is the benchmark for most definitions of God. But Mike is again presumably OK with this since he prefers the non-theist label as an alternative to the typical theist/atheist dichotomy.

Axiom #3 – Prayer

Prayer is AT LEAST a form of meditation that encourages the development of healthy brain tissue, lowers stress, and can connect us to God. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of prayer, the health and psychological benefits of prayer justify the discipline.

Given the definition of ‘God’ above, it isn’t clear what is meant by saying that prayer “can connect us to God”. My best guess is that prayer can serve to reinforce the sense that the psychosocial model of God reflects reality. No argument there. I would contest, however, whether this definition of prayer is adequate to support the ‘EVEN IF’ conclusion, which assumes a particular form of prayer that isn’t clearly constrained in the definition and thus infers that anything one labels as prayer could fit into the claim. To clarify in Venn diagram form:

Incorporating these observations, I suggest that a more accurate axiom might be that “Prayer is AT LEAST an attempt to connect with God that, in a certain forms, can encourage healthy neurological development and lower stress. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of prayer, the health and psychological benefits justify these forms of prayer as a religious discipline”.

Axiom #4 – Sin

Sin is AT LEAST volitional action or inaction that violates one’s own understanding of what is moral. Sin comes from the divergent impulses between our lower and higher brain functions and our evolution-driven tendency to do things that serve ourselves and our tribe. EVEN IF this is all sin is, it is destructive and threatens human flourishing.

It appears to me that this axiom is assuming that one’s own understanding of what is moral is neither destructive nor threatening to human flourishing. I don’t think there’s any doubt that people can cognitively accept moral perspectives that are destructive or threatening to human flourishing. So though I find the given definition to be a reasonable projection of the concept of sin onto a scientifically grounded view of human moral agency, the unstated assumptions underlying the conclusion are not certain, even if they often hold true. See the Moral Ontology post for a more thorough unpacking of my take on the nature of morality.

Axiom #5 – The Afterlife

The afterlife is AT LEAST the persistence of our physical matter in the ongoing life cycle on Earth, the memes we pass on to others with our lives, and the model of our unique neurological signature in the brains of those who knew us. EVEN IF this is all the afterlife is, the consequences of our actions persist beyond our death and our ethical considerations must consider a timeline beyond our death.

Agreed.

Axiom #6 – Salvation

Salvation is AT LEAST the means by which humanity overcomes sin to produce human flourishing. EVEN IF this is all salvation is, spiritual and religious actions and beliefs that promote salvation are good for humankind.

The issue I raised for the definition of sin – namely that a person’s notion of what it means to overcome sin is not guaranteed to produce human flourishing – spills over into this definition. That is, the pursuit of salvation is not guaranteed to produce goods for humankind. Even so, I agree that the underlying principle of practicing careful moral reflection to deliberately guide our actions is worth encouraging and generally yields outcomes which prove themselves to be preferable in the long run.

Axiom #7 – Jesus

Jesus is AT LEAST a man so connected to God that he was called the Son of God and the largest religious movement in human history is centered around his teachings. EVEN IF this is all Jesus is, following his teachings can promote peace, empathy, and genuine morality.

I want to start by first offering a proposed revision to this axiom: “Jesus is AT LEAST a man so connected to associated with God that he was called the Son of God and the largest religious movement in human history is centered around his teachings persona. EVEN IF this is all Jesus is, following his the socially relevant teachings attributed to him can promote peace, empathy, and genuine morality.

That first change is just an attempt to clarify. I don’t know if Mike intended to identify a conceptual connection or a spiritual connection, but we can’t know anything about the latter, so I assume the former. Regardless, I also see that Christianity as a whole is more centered on the identity and nature of Jesus than on the words attributed to him. With regard to those teachings, I agree that there are many facets which can promote peace, empathy and moral behavior, but that does not apply to the entirety of the red letters. It is ultimately the persona of Jesus that we embrace which dictates the personal impact of those teachings as a whole.

Axiom #8 – The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is AT LEAST the psychological and neurological components of God that allow God to be experienced as a personal force or agent. EVEN IF this is all the Holy Spirit is, God is more relatable and neurologically actionable when experienced this way.

Fair enough.

Axiom #9 – Church

The Church is AT LEAST the global community of people who choose to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. EVEN IF this is all the church is, the Church is still the largest body of spiritual scholarship, community, and faith practice in the world – and this practice can improve people’s lives in real, measurable ways.

Much of what I said for Axiom #7 also applies to the definition here, with regard to the church’s relation to Jesus. I would also suggest that this axiom implies far more cohesion than actually exists, though I recognize that there is a core set of beliefs and practices in the Christian tradition which are embraced by the vast majority of the communities who claim the label. Nonetheless, this diversity also means that there are plenty of options to choose from and thus a good chance that you can find a community in which you are comfortable. This is one area where the secular world is lacking. I would not be at all surprised if, in practice, this particular aspect of the Christian tradition outweighs all others with respect to encouraging and retaining affiliation.

Axiom #10 – The Bible

The Bible is AT LEAST a collection of books and writings assembled by the Church that chronicle a people group’s experiences with, and understanding of, God over thousands of years. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of the Bible, study of scripture is warranted to understand our culture and the way in which people come to know God.

This definition is OK, though I think it somewhat overstates the period of authorship and centrality of God (especially as previously defined) in the biblical corpus. More significantly, I’m having trouble reconciling the conclusion. I can see that the study of scripture would be warranted for the purpose of understanding the authors’ cultures and the way in which they perceived God, but it isn’t clear to me how well this translates to a more generalized human culture and perception of God. I would think you would need to study a wide variety of religious texts and traditions to get a handle on that. Nor is it obvious why that should be considered a worthwhile pursuit.

In the end, I don’t have overwhelming objections to these axioms and can appreciate how they would serve the role for which they are intended – to provide a reasonable grounding for justifying the adoption of some form of Christianity. But I am also left feeling like several of them are playing semantic games that manipulate our sense of religious identity by establishing associations to Christian terminology for concepts which are not clearly rooted in that tradition. Mike might even agree with that assessment. He is a self-professed expert manipulator, after all.

Any Way You Want It

I am intrigued by Mike’s experience and appreciate his perspective and approach to faith, but this book doesn’t have the gravity to nudge my trajectory. As I see it, the primary obstacle lies in the way that the reasoning presented in the second half of the book struck me as a recipe for improving your life by creating God, rather than by finding God, as suggested by the title. The realization that the god I believed in could very well be my own creation, built upon the creations of generations of humans before me and evolving right along with my shifting beliefs, was a primary influence in my deconversion. Despite recognizing the possibility of a pragmatically grounded faith, it is difficult for me to countenance how that same creative process might restore me to some sort of religious faith. Interestingly, it’s possible that Mike wouldn’t deny that this is exactly what he’s doing. The first question at the Portland stop of his Q&A tour asked whether God would continue to exist if every sentient creature ceased to exist and he said “what I identify as God would no longer exist”, but immediately followed that up with a caveat about how the mystical and irrational side of the equation leads him to hope for a different answer.

That’s a Wrap

Science Mike will remain in my podcast rotation and has inspired me to spend more time exploring the “Pragmatic Christianity” investigation that I proposed a few years back. Even though I am not compelled to embrace the scaffolding upon which Mike has built his current worldview I respect the way that he engages with the evidence and I appreciate the environment he is working to cultivate. I think that most of us would prefer a world full of people who interact with the same kind of compassion, open-mindedness and respect that this community seeks. Here’s to hoping that the future of American Christianity looks more and more like the communities we find in the wake of the waves that are being made by Science Mike and his cohorts.

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Finding God in the Waves (Part 1: The Backstory)

Science Who?

Somehow, despite expecting that I was keeping current with the zeitgeist at the confluence of belief and skepticism, it turns out that I was oblivious to a relatively prominent movement in progressive Christianity over the last few years in America. The Liturgists podcast, which started in July 2014, currently reports over a quarter million subscribers. The podcast was birthed out of the faith crises of Mike McHargue and Michael Gungor (who I recall seeing open for David Crowder about 10 years ago – when we were both unquestioningly abiding in the evangelical world of our youth). It deals openly and honestly with doubt as a central component of a healthy Christian faith and tests the limits of orthodoxy while embracing controversial figures like Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans and Pete Enns. Participants in this community call themselves exvangelicals and talk about going through an ongoing process of deconstruction. Mike McHargue published the first episode of Ask Science Mike six months after the first Liturgists podcast and eventually garnered a large enough following that when his book was released in September 2016 he was able to schedule a whirlwind tour hosting live Q&A events across the country. That’s when I caught wind and started to tune in.

The Ask Science Mike podcast has been a regular member of my podcast rotation for several months now. It’s where I became familiar with Mike McHargue’s story and the not-so-orthodox brand of Christianity he endorses (if “endorse” if even the right word). His website labels him a “spiritual skeptic” but in his book he says he avoids self-labeling as much as he can. That’s probably a good choice because “empiricist, progressive, skeptical, non-theist, mystic Jesus follower” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Labels aside, I have come to respect Science Mike as I have listened to him discuss his journey, his regard for a scientific epistemology and his concern with much of what we find in evangelicalism. So, despite its title, “Finding God in the Waves: How I lost my faith and found it again through science” isn’t your typical apologetics book. Scratch that – this isn’t an apologetics book at all. It’s a story of one man’s journey and his faith perspective at the time of writing, a perspective that he suggests is no more justified than the perspective of a contented unbeliever.

The book is divided into two distinct halves. This post focuses on Part I – titled ‘Lost and Found’ – which is an autobiographical recounting of Mike’s journey, from growing up in the Southern Baptist church (and as a social pariah at school), to a spiritual renewal into a more progressive form of Christianity, to an unwilling transition into a closet atheist, to making peace with his loss of faith and finally to the experience that led him to, well, whatever he is now. You may have noticed that I just glossed over a whole bunch of details that you can enjoy if you read the book for yourself. My goal here isn’t to retell Mike’s story but rather to highlight the points of contact (and dissimilarities) with my own journey to see if I can provide some context for my response to the second half of the book, where he delves into the foundations of his current faith.

The Journey Begins

Many aspects of Mike’s story have no analog in my life, but there are still elements to which I could relate. We share a “1960’s sitcom” (his words) upbringing in a stable, loving family with a commitment to a biblical Christianity. Mine came complete with family devotions based on James Dobson’s ‘Focus on the Family’ materials and church engagement that extended well beyond Sunday morning. But that’s about the extent of the similarities. I was never bullied, never went through an apathetic rock-band stage, and haven’t experienced any earth-shattering family crises. My backstory is about as boring and untraumatic as it gets.

Fast-forward twenty or so years and I did find some familiarity in his description of the period where he began to honestly question, for the first time, the faith tradition that he had always taken for granted. For Mike this was spurred on by a conviction that the Bible was the key to reconciling his parents’ divorce. For me this was a matter of being in a position to lead small group studies and feeling an obligation to know how to “properly” guide the discussion in truth. Either way, we ended up on a similar course, discovering a whole new dimension of the Christian world and shedding the more fundamentalist aspects of our faith. I embraced the scientifically literate reconciliatory work of Biologos, the rationalism of C.S. Lewis and a view of the Bible that did not insist on inerrancy. I directed the group into a study based on Tim Keller’s ‘Reason for God’ DVDs to share my newfound appreciation for apologetics (and because I knew that Keller was a “safe” figure in the evangelical world despite accepting the validity of theistic evolution). I distinctly remember the hesitancy and nervous deliberation before hitting send on what I considered to be a controversial email that responded to a small-group discussion by offering support for the potential legitimacy of universalism. So I feel like I can relate to this stage of Mike’s story. It’s invigorating to discover that faith and intellectual integrity can coexist. But of course, that wasn’t the end of either of our stories.

Don’t Stop Believin’

The thing about apologetics is that there are two sides to the argument. Once you dive in, its hard to miss the views that the apologetics are intended to rebut and eventually you’ll see the true depth of the argument rather than the strawmen that the apologetic often sets up. Mike entered willingly into that fray, confident that his newfound perspective could hold up to scrutiny. I’m not sure how I was drawn into a more deliberate review of the arguments from the other side; I think I just gradually stumbled into more and more encounters with the opposing views until suddenly one day I found myself with a big pile of unsatisfactory explanations for what was starting to look more and more like my own private brand of Christianity. It was time to test the quality of the truths I held. Books needed to be read.

Deconversion stories don’t always have a clear tipping point. Some people just gradually fall away from the faith while others can distinctly recall a gestalt switch moment. Mike encountered his gestalt switch while reading Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’, which led him to really question whether it made sense to impart a purpose behind the immense vastness of the universe. His prayer the next morning was simply “God, I don’t know why I’m praying. You aren’t even real” and he was instantly struck with a sense of existential nihilism and profound grief.

My gestalt switch moment also came in response to a book. I was sitting in my truck after work and had just finished listening to the audiobook for Bart Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’. The primacy of humanity in the development of the Christian faith tradition was more apparent than ever and I found myself saying something like “Doesn’t this all* make more sense if there isn’t a God behind it?”. Like Mike, I experienced an instant reaction to that verbalization but it bore a vastly different quality. Rather than darkness and defeat I was struck by a sense of shock and wonder – shock at the fact that I had actually just assented to a reversal of a lifelong belief, and wonder at the prospect of a universe that could be understood on its own terms. As bizarre as it may sound, I distinctly remember helping my wife make the bed that evening and perceiving the billowing of the sheets as if it was this intricate dance between different forces of nature. It was as if I could finally see the world for what it really was. I was Neo and the veil over the matrix was gone.

*To be clear, when I say “this all”, the sentiment extends well beyond the Bible and includes all of the aforementioned unsatisfactory explanations. Ehrman’s book was simply the straw the broke the camel’s back.

Worlds Apart

The gestalt switch moment may be subjectively profound, but the novelty wanes and we eventually must contend with the a world that has carried on, oblivious to our revelation.

I find it difficult to express the incredible fear associated with the public disclosure of a loss of faith. In retrospect the extreme trepidation almost seems ridiculous, but the strong social dynamic and binary nature of the Christian identity combine to present a daunting hurdle for the apostate. Couple this with a family bond and the whole thing is absolutely terrifying. I guess that’s why Mike went on putting up a facade for two years; teaching classes, serving in ministries, playing worship songs and even leading his daughter through a confession of faith! I, on the other hand, wasn’t able to last more than a few months. The masquerade was more than I could bear.

Case in point – I distinctly remember the first time my newfound perspective started to leak out. It was probably only a few weeks after that moment in my truck and I was leading our small group through a study that for some reason included a reading of the story of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6 – you know, the one where God kills Uzzah on the spot because he touched the ark to steady it after the ox had tripped. Seeing this story with fresh eyes, I found myself unable to resist asking the group whether they thought it extreme and callous for God to respond this way to a person’s instinctual reaction, to which one member of the group responded by saying that “rules are rules”. I was dumbstruck. After a brief period of uncomfortable silence, I somehow managed to make it through the rest of the night without incident and started this blog shortly thereafter.

Fast-forward a couple months and I had reached my threshold for pretending. I broke the news to my wife, shortly after Christmas, and subsequently excused myself from all roles in the church. The marital strain was almost certainly the most difficult part of the whole process. It created a distance between us that I had never felt before and have never felt since. Here I find agreement with Mike, who describes the night after revealing his unbelief to his wife:

“We went to bed, and for the first time in our marriage, an iron curtain ran down the center of the mattress. We were in bed together, but we weren’t together. A rift had opened up between us.”

As dramatic as that sounds, Mike and I had it good. Many marriages have disintegrated under these circumstances and though Mike’s wife followed up the next day with “I’m not sure we can be married anymore”, in the end it appears that we were both fortunate to have partners who were thoughtful enough to see past the marital apocalypse and believe in a relationship that could survive ideological boundaries. I sincerely echo Mike’s appreciation for a wife and family who are committed to unconditional love – it makes all the difference. But then our stories diverge again.

Open Arms

The closing chapter caps off the narrative portion of the book with a climactic event that offers the most dramatic contrast to my own journey. I’ll skimp on the details again and just say that Mike had a religious experience which involved hearing a voice and – several hours later – encountering an unexpected literal wave that was immediately followed by a metaphorical wave of transcendent, ineffable, mystical goodness. The tremendous impact this had is evident in both the retelling and the ongoing role it has played in shaping his journey since that time.

I can’t say that I’ve ever had an experience like this. Sure, I’ve had deeply emotional moments that were initiated through a religious context but, as far as I can tell from the description, they were nothing like this. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether I have actually experienced circumstances similar to Mike’s but in which I failed to perceive the divine and so also failed to summon the kind of transcendent response in which it culminated. I suspect that most deconverts can relate to having questioned whether God was trying to get their attention through spontaneous thoughts, coincidences and other circumstances in which a message or purpose can be found. So I can’t help but find myself wondering whether the crescendo of the events leading up to Mike’s beach encounter, and his generally emotional disposition, set the stage for a strong and sudden flood of emotions (at 3AM, no less) that birthed an overwhelmingly ineffable experience. Maybe. Or maybe it was God. I have no way to know. And therein lies the difficulty.

Regardless, the narrative portion of the book was an engaging read that clearly isn’t trying to sell anything and appears to present an honest portrayal of his journey. I find no reason to question Science Mike’s sincerity and I respect the way he has integrated the full body of experiences into his current position – a position that I consider to be rational in spite of any differences we may have. In Part 2 I’ll move on to explore the second half of the book, where Mike expounds on the foundations of his reconstructed faith.

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Introducing measureoffaith.blog

I took advantage of the new .blog top-level domain to do something I’ve wanted to do for some time – I’ve transitioned the blog to my own hosting account, now resident at measureoffaith.blog. This is mostly driven by the fact that I’m a geek and want to try some things that couldn’t be done on a standard wordpress.com account, but for the time being everything should look pretty much identical to the way it did before. The transition is supposed to be seamless for all followers and readers and all permalinks should still work, but please let me know if you discover any issues or have any suggestions for the new site.

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