Archives for posts with tag: jesus

A friend once told me, “Jesus is absolutely real to me.”

I can’t meet this half-way. It’s wrong. It is a misuse of words. Jesus is not real to you. That is simply not true.

Once a woman was getting onto an elevator with me and she said, “It’s so hot out there I was literally melting.” She misused the word ‘literally’. To say “Jesus is real to me” is to misuse the word ‘real’. Jesus is not real. He is a thought, an image, a feeling. He is not a person. This is so obvious that I feel goofy pointing it out. You could get away with saying, “It’s as if I can touch him,” but not with “I can touch him.” That is simply not true. You can’t see him, touch him, hear him, or smell him. He’s not there.

Jesus is not a person. That’s why you can’t have a personal relationship with him. Even if he exists as some sort of immortal spirit, that’s not the same thing as being a person. Jesus the person died 2,000 years ago (if he ever existed). And you can’t have a personal relationship with an old pile of bones.

“Jesus seems real to me” could be taken seriously (as a report of a feeling) – but “Jesus is absolutely real to me” is absolutely wrong. To combine the relative expression ‘to me’ with the absolute word ‘real’ – plus the word ‘absolute’! – is perfectly incoherent. This is a sentence that cannot possibly mean anything.

Maybe what you are trying to convey is that Jesus is a topic that, for you, is charged with emotion. You feel something when you read or think or talk about Jesus. But feelings don’t prove anything. If feelings made things true, then everyone on Earth would have a steady romantic partner (except for those few people who don’t want one). Your having strong feelings about Jesus doesn’t prove that Jesus exists. It’s that simple.

As we showed earlier, your strong feelings don’t even prove that you believe that Jesus exists. Feelings are not beliefs.

To sum up: I do not accept your statement that Jesus is “absolutely real” to you. I don’t believe that it can be true.

Many people have requested a one-page summary of the new book. This one is under 400 words. [Slightly revised 8 June 2010.]

Roy Sablosky: NO ONE BELIEVES IN GOD (second draft, November 2009)

  1. It’s not about belief
    1. That religion has to do with beliefs becomes implausible when you look at the behaviors it evokes. For example:
      1. Their “beliefs” challenged, people are often enraged, as if you had threatened not their opinions but their safety.
      2. One joins a group, not its beliefs. Self-described Catholics may differ profoundly with their church elders on important issues; they are Catholics despite their beliefs.
      3. Notoriously, church elders routinely flout the “beliefs” they most fervently espouse.
    2. Claims of belief are implausible where the tenet in question is nonsensical.
      1. Religious propositions are incoherent. (This is probably by design. A slogan is catchier if no one knows what it means.) In the sentence “Jesus loves you” for example, both the subject and the verb are impossible to characterize or observe. Such a statement is perfectly empty: it is a pseudo-proposition.
      2. Since they are without meaning, religious statements can be neither meant nor believed. Thomas Jefferson: “I suppose belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition.” Ludwig Wittgenstein: “one cannot mean a senseless series of words.”
    3. Therefore, no one really believes in the teachings of any prophet or the existence of any god. It cannot be done. It does not happen. People who think they are doing it are mistaken.
  2. Religion is made of memes plus authoritarianism
    1. Religious “beliefs” are memes. Just like germs, they are contagious; and just like germs they evolve through natural selection. The religious memes circulating now have evolved over thousands of years to be very, very good at what they do.
    2. People are naturally deferential to authority figures.
    3. Authority and memetic self-replication combine to form religion.
  3. What we should do
    1. Admit no religious exceptions to any legislation. A few examples:
      1. End all tax breaks (that is: subsidies) for religious organizations and their personnel.
      2. Eliminate chaplaincy programs at all levels of government, including the armed services.
      3. Remove legislative impediments to abortion and birth control.
      4. Outlaw the teaching of antediluvian codswallop in public school.
      5. Government should ratify only civil unions, not “marriages”. Anyone willing and competent to sign such a contract should be allowed to.
    2. Revise the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. No proposal having a religious rationale or using religious terminology should become a law.

“I know that Jesus loves me.”

No, you don’t.

“How can you say that? I feel it in my heart.”

Wait, do you know it or feel it? Those are different things. Knowledge (or belief) is different from feeling (or emotion).

When challenged about their professed “beliefs”, folks often reply with what sounds like evidence from introspection. They say things like, “I feel it in my heart.” But a feeling is not a belief. A feeling is a direct, non-verbal, bodily experience; a belief is a commitment to an idea – as Thomas Jefferson put it, “the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition.” You had a feeling, which was originally non-conceptual, and then you connected that feeling with a concept – that of ‘god’. This association in your mind, between a warm feeling and a fuzzy concept, is then presented as the answer to whether you have a belief in god. But neither the feeling, nor the concept, nor the connection between them, constitute a belief.

If you diligently practice any of various styles of meditation, you will eventually have the kind of experience that many people refer to as ‘transcendental’. In fact, one of the reasons you meditate is that you’ve heard reports of this kind of thing and you want to experience it for yourself. And there’s nothing wrong with that. So one day you’re sitting and this thing happens to you, and it’s amazing. It’s like – it’s like – how to describe it? Words are such feeble things compared to this thing, or place, or idea you’ve just seen, or felt, or understood!

Well, that might be true. But I know something that is definitely true. There are words waiting for you. They’re all around you. They’re literally in the air you breathe. People say them all the time. You can choose the ones you like. You had a ‘transcendental’, or ‘spiritual’, or ‘enlightenment’ experience. You reached ‘nirvana’, or ‘satori’, or ‘the Void beyond awareness’. You ‘became one with the Universe’. You ‘saw the face of God’. Take your pick; there are hundreds of them.

I’m not even saying that any of these descriptions is necessarily incorrect. That’s not the point. (Nor do I mean to suggest that such experiences should not be sought, or enjoyed, or valued.) The point is that if you’re old enough to have this kind of experience, you’re old enough to have heard the words for it – that is, the descriptions favored by the culture where you grew up. You can’t have the experience without having been ‘primed’ by that terminology. While in that exalted state you might be able to push aside such thoughts – this being a special aspect of such experiences – but not afterwards, when you’ve returned to not-so-transcendental consciousness. Then you’re going to call it what you’ve heard it called. If people around you tend to call it ‘higher awareness’, that’s what you’ll call it; if they say ‘cosmic consciousness’, that’s what you’ll say too. And if they call it ‘seeing the face of God’ or ‘feeling Jesus in your heart’, not only will you call it that; chances are it will feel like that.

But it isn’t that.

Again: I am not saying you shouldn’t do it. Quiet meditation is a Good Thing. I’m just pointing out that meditative states are frequently misdescribed. “I had a beautiful experience” is one thing; “I saw the face of God” is another. The former report may be accurate; the latter cannot be.

How do I know? Well, ultimately I know because I have noticed that the very concept of ‘god’ is incoherent, so not only are there no gods, but the idea of their existence is not even a coherent proposal that deserves careful rebuttal. But we don’t have bring out the big guns. We can observe, much more modestly, that feelings and beliefs are different things.

When you meditate (or in whatever circumstance it occurs), you have these feelings. They are powerful, special, beautiful and interesting. They do not come with a serial number, barcode, or owner’s manual. They are utterly non-verbal. For thousands of years, adepts have assured us that trying to convey such experiences with words is pointless. We have thousands of pages of such disclaimers – and attempts, by the same authors, to convey their experiences.

By the way, I am not convinced that the reason meditative states are so hard to describe is that they are so sublime. It may be simply because they are essentially non-verbal; they are feelings, not knowledge. All feelings are hard to put into words, even the everyday kind. Can you put into words exactly how you feel when you’re stuck in traffic? Could you make someone understand it who had never endured it?

In any case, feelings are, by definition, wordless. We have feelings, and on the other hand we have names for them. The original experience was wordless. That’s part of why it was so great. So, I can call my spiritual experience ‘touching the Void’ (for example), but I know that this is a label, added after the fact – that even the word ‘spiritual’ is a label, for something that originally had nothing to do with words.

Well, I should know this. But it’s easy to forget, especially in religious contexts. Because the churches have great cabinets stocked with words for us to use. And churches are more interested in our words than in our feelings. Tell your friends and neighbors in your local Baptist Church about a feeling you had this morning, while praying, of “a kind of warmth or welcoming or safety – sorry, it’s hard to put into words,” and you’ll get some half-hearted smiles. But if you say, “I felt Jesus’s love in my heart,” well, Glory Hallelujah, you’ll be a star.

Feelings are non-verbal. You can interpret them as meaning something specific, but it’s always going to be an interpretation. If you have a feeling that you attribute to the love of God, or the awareness of the Universe, or whatever, you are going beyond the data of experience and proposing a theory about what caused the feeling. Now if you hypothesize a physical agent, you can get some traction. Maybe you’ve ingested certain substances; or practiced certain psychological exercises; or you have epilepsy. Physical things can cause you to have certain experiences. Non-physical entities that don’t exist, except as words, cannot. If your theory involves an immortal spirit or a transcendent reality, no conceivable data will support it. Once you postulate an immaterial cause, you’re in the unfortunate position of trying to find an immaterial effect. You’ve painted yourself into a corner. You’ve sawed off the branch you were sitting on.

(Don’t get hung up on the idea that thoughts and emotions are “mental” rather than “physical” events. People say things like, “Love can have overwhelming effects, even though it’s not physical.” This is not correct. Mental-versus-physical is a false dichotomy. But clarifying this point is beyond the scope of this book. Try the first half of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.)

As another reason that your feelings cannot validate your religious beliefs, let me reiterate the point I mentioned in passing, a few paragraphs back. You cannot believe an incoherent proposition. No matter how much you want to, you can’t. Belief does not work that way. Just as there are no socks without a place to put your foot in, because if there’s no place to put your foot in it’s not a sock, so there are no beliefs that are not about some proposition, because if it’s not about a proposition it’s not a belief. Someone who says “I believe that bibble bobble beeble” is using the word ‘belief’ improperly. This is because bibble bobble beeble is not a proposition; therefore, the transitive verb ‘believe’ has no object; therefore, the sentence makes no sense in English. And similar considerations apply to all religious propositions. That’s how religious propositions are constructed. They are designed to be incoherent. Coherent (communicative) statements do not perform religious functions, and vice versa.

If the foregoing is true, then everyone who thinks that they can justify their religious beliefs, by any method at all, is mistaken, first of all because they don’t have any religious beliefs. No one does.

The “Virgin Birth” — how did that work, exactly? Did God use one of Mary’s ova, and add a sperm of his own? (By the way, how can he make a sperm — or any thing at all — if he’s immaterial? And when did he make it, if he’s eternal?) Or, did he implant a ready-made zygote — or an embryo — or a fetus? Which was it? And in all of these cases, did he adjust Mary’s hormone levels to prevent rejection? If so, how was the adjustment carried out? — if not, how did he prevent rejection?

Those are ridiculous questions. It was a miracle. Maybe you’re unclear on the concept.

I think you are the one who is unclear. The details of the miracle matter very much, for the following reason: if you can’t tell me how it happened, then you can’t tell me what you believe.

I believe that Jesus was born without Mary having had sex with a man. That’s called the Virgin Birth.

But how was it done? So far we have, “In December of one year she was a virgin; in December of the following year she had a baby.” Unless we know more, this is not actually a very unusual story.

In between, there was a miracle!

But what does that mean? The word is supplying no information. Is that what you believe? — god did something magical, but we don’t know what?

He made a baby!

But human couples do that every day.

But he did it in a different way.

Different, how?

There was no man! There was no sex!

Don’t tell me how it wasn’t, I want to know how it was. Let me put it this way: how was what God did more miraculous than two humans having sex? I mean, that way is pretty amazing. What did God do that was more amazing than that?

How could I know that?

I have no idea how you could know! — but if you don’t know, then how are we to understand what it is that you are saying that you believe in? You are amazed and inspired by God’s having done… what?

As far as I can tell, to say it was a miracle is the same as saying you don’t know what happened. Does it make sense to call that a belief? “I believe in something, but I don’t know what exactly” — is that what you’re telling us?

I believe I hate you. Actually, I am quite certain of it.

As far as I can tell, the idea of divine intervention does not mean anything. It is incoherent. Your “belief” in miracles does not just lack empirical support; the very idea is without meaning. Rational rebuttal is unnecessary, because you have made no specific claim. The truth is, I am rapidly losing interest in this topic.








–Men’s room, College Park Diner, College Park, Maryland

Bill McKibben’s “The Christian Paradox: How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong” (in the latest Harper’s) is fascinating and wrong.

Christianity in America has gone bad, McKibben says. It’s concerned with the wrong things. It needs to return to its roots: the actual admonitions given by Jesus.

America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior. […] [T]here is nothing else that unites more than four fifths of America. […] That’s what America is: a place saturated in Christian identity. But is it Christian? This is not a matter of angels dancing on the heads of pins. Christ was pretty specific about what he had in mind for his followers.

The article proceeds to describe two specific ways in which people have strayed from the True Way. But, for all McKibben’s obvious intelligence and sincerity, this argument – that people aren’t doing it right; that real Christians wouldn’t behave that way – is threadbare, confused, and dangerous.

Here are just the few objections I see right off the bat.

  1. Bill McKibben does not know what Jesus actually said.
  2. Whether or not Jesus actually said any particular thing is not relevant to whether it has any utility for us here and now.
  3. Religious groups always say that other groups are doing it wrong. But there has never been a method for ascertaining whose claims might be “genuine.” Why? Because there are no genuine claims in this field. No one’s favorite flavor of total nonsense is more genuine than anyone else’s favorite flavor of total nonsense.

The only way to resolve the “paradox” of Christian “belief” is to recognize that belief is the wrong word for it.