Supernatural Atheism doesn’t work August 20, 2009

Supernatural Atheism doesn’t work

I recently attended the Netroots Nation panel in Pittsburgh on the proposal for a “New Progressive Vision of Church and State.”  The proposal, which I criticized last week, was written by Bruce Ledewitz, an atheist himself and author of “Hallowed Secularism.”  The panel wasn’t as bad as I had feared, as he had invited staunch defenders of the separation of church and state like Fred Clarkson of Talk2Action.  For a more complete description of the panel, check out what Greta Christina wrote, whom I met there.

After the panel, I spent about an hour talking to Ledewitz and Clarkson about secularism.  Ledewitz writes in his book that his goal is to “suggest why Hallowed Secularism, which establishes a closer relationship between secularism and religion, is necessary.”  It’s a very fuzzy attempt at middle ground, taking part of religion to stave off the so-called failures of secularism.  Here’s a passage from the introduction:

What is needed is a source of power, order, and beauty outside humans themselves – in fact, outside the visible order altogether but not outside human experience.  This is precisely what Our Religions give to those who are open to them.  Can secularists have this without the traditional God?

Yes.  Even without Our Religions, human beings can encounter a mysterious otherness, both personally and historically – an otherness upon which we can build our lives and a civilization.

I’m not done with the book, but anytime someone talks about a “mysterious otherness” it pays to be wary.  What, exactly, is he talking about?  I don’t know.  In our conversation he said he wanted to tap into the power outside humans – but was unable to tell me quite what that power is.  He insists that we secularists need to be more ‘religious’ but couldn’t define for me what he meant by religion, even when I asked him directly in person.

As an example of the ‘otherness’ he goes on to cite a woman who had a freak spiritual experience and says:

Hallowed Secularism can, however, acknowledge that human life has this aspect and that it is meaningful.  [A spiritual] encounter might even be authoritative in one’s life; that is, such experience might teach me how to live.  Such experiences are not merely subjective.

Another word I would love to have defined is “meaningful.”  Yes, the human brain can go haywire and stimulate the temporal lobe to give an awe-inspiring feeling of oneness.  How can this teach you to live?  How is it objective?

I won’t put words into his mouth – maybe he answers my questions later in the book or in an email correspondence.  I’ll keep you posted.

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  • AIH

    Supernatural atheism is by definition a contradiction; should the author be classified as an agnostic rather than an atheist? I haven’t found any evidence the existence of supernatural of any kind, and indeed based on my experiences I don’t believe there is a god, a higher power, or a “mysterious otherness;” I therefore classify myself as an atheist. The term “mysterious otherness” reeks to me of new age jargon and seems like it should come with mystical healing crystals.

  • I gather that spirituality without religion is the gist of what they are talking about. Why in the hell does secularists, agnostics and atheists have to deal with or in silly ideas and concepts of the believers?

    It is emotion. We feel. We feel awe when looking at the universe or a Michael Jordan dunk. We feel a connection with our friends, family…arts, music, etc. We feel joy, happiness, sad…we feel the profoundness/gravitas of a moment. It is being human.

    It comes from us, there is not any otherness. Otherness doesn’t even make any sense…other than what? If it is other, then we cannot name it, that is silly metaphysical nonsense. We don’t need to take some half-assed spirituality to describe it.

  • That doesn’t even make sense. “Otherness”? What other? That which is not human? That would be… everything but humans. That’s not spiritual, that’s just the cold hard facts.

    Mostly, this seems to be an attempt to craft a flavor of atheism that’s more palatable to the religious folk, which is just foolishness. There’s no reason to alter the expression of your beliefs so you don’t hurt someone’s feelings.

  • Shane

    Seems like someone is throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater. The enemy is not “God”, but this kind of fuzzy, superstitious (non)thinking.

  • Skunque

    I highly suspicious of people who refuse to explicitly define their terms. Makes me think they are hiding behind the large amount of wiggle room that being vague provides. It’s quite a pet peeve with me, and I’m not afraid to call out anyone who does the little dance to get out of telling people what they fracking mean.

  • Anonymous

    In our conversation he said he wanted to tap into the power outside humans – but was unable to tell me quite what that power is.

    He meant static electricity. He just needs to get a rug 🙂

  • Justin jm

    human beings can encounter a mysterious otherness, both personally and historically – an otherness upon which we can build our lives and a civilization.

    I’d think that civilization and lives would be better built upon an understanding of human beings, instead of an undefined “other.”

  • Snuggly Buffalo

    As I mentioned over on a while back, it seems like some people have a need for this kind of thing. A lot of people have a need for “spirituality” or that “mysterious otherness.” I find it rather curious, given that I’ve never really felt a need for that sort of thing. Even as a Christian having religious experiences, I felt they were just a part of the religion and not something I actively sought out. I’m sure this made it easier for me to leave the faith, as I can freely admit that my experiences were entirely the product of my mind and aren’t something I need to be “real.”

    I have to wonder if it isn’t something that’s just wired in to some of us. Some people, even when thinking rationally, seem to need this kind of thing, while others see no point.

  • mikespeir

    I wouldn’t agree that “supernatural atheism” is technically an oxymoron. But I do wonder what arguments against the existence of deity couldn’t apply equally well against the existence of anything supernatural.

  • Maybe we should just teach people more math? There’s more than enough wonder and weirdness going on in math to satisfy anyone for multiple lifetimes of wonder.

  • But what is the reason to define this human emotion as “something haywire”, especially since all human cultures have reported such experiences? Love, after all, has a clear physiological foundation. But love is not merely the physiological. Justice no doubt as well means something different for primates than for canines. But that does not mean that justice is merely biological. And I absolutely agree about math. Some mathematicians thought they were seeing the mind of the divine.

  • HP

    Maybe this is because I’m a Sagan Baby, but I think that one of the reasons that human beings sometimes feel a strong connection to the universe is because, duh, We. Are. Connected. To the Universe!

    What science, especially biology and physics, has taught us in the last 50 years or so is that there exists no clear boundary between individual human beings and everything else. Every atom in our bodies was forged in the heart of an exploding star billions of years ago. The physical and chemical processes that govern us govern everything else. Even the cells in your body that share your DNA are dwarfed by the number of bacterial cells you carry, without which you would die. The difference between life and nonlife is a question of degree (ask a virus). We are nothing but statistical noise in an entropy field.

    Consciousness, the self, the sense of separation from the universe, is an emergent property of language. That’s the artifice. That’s the unusual state of affairs. The religious and the spiritual people occasionally transcend the prison of the self to feel connected to the world, and they call it a miracle. I call it normal.

    I sometimes suspect that the people who value transcendence so highly must experience it very infrequently. Any sense of connection they feel must be so rare that it becomes a pearl of high price. I suspect that most atheists are people who feel a sense of beauty and wonder every damn day.

  • Steve

    I think someone came up with what your looking for about 2500 years ago…Secular Buddhism…i.e. without all the superfluous superstitious wrappings that come with some versions. OK, I realize that there are a lot of versions and a lot of baggage that come with it, but at it’s core, IMHO, it’s all about “Pay Attention” and “Know thyself”.

  • elf_man

    “Consciousness, the self, the sense of separation from the universe, is an emergent property of language.”

    When Descartes said “I think therefore I am” that was his language playing a joke on him.

    Experience, then language.

    I experience, therefore I am.
    Expressed in words, of course. 😛

  • justanotherjones

    Yeah. I think someone’s just trying to sell some books.

    That said, I do have some friends who claim they don’t believe in God. Yet, they do and say things that lead me to think they do have some superstitious and vague supernatural beliefs.

  • We are the universe experiencing itself. I guess that’s a form of pantheism.

  • While a critical examination of this topic is important and necesary, I submit that this line type of philosophy may be beneficial in the long run. While I can only speak for myself, I suspect there are at least a few others who could identify with my story.

    After growing up in a Christian family/town/state, I came to disbelieve in god after exploring and identifying with other ideas about a higher power that were more compatible with the way I saw the world. Finally, through reflection and critical thinking, I came to realize there was no reason to believe in the supernatural at all.

    My point is, I think it is difficult for many people two go directly from belief to non-belief. Some intermediate steps may be helpful.

  • Tom

    No, supernatural/superstitious atheist is not an oxymoron. ” ” freethinker, maybe

    I have encountered quite a few atheists who seek out another paradigm to replace that which society no longer provides, such as superstition/ghost obsession/shamanism

    This is all very attractive to parts of ourselves that may feel a greater connection to things. But it is all rather psychotic and disorganized. It’s believing your own delusions. Atheists are not free of this, no matter what you may brag.

    I find those who study anthropology are particularly drawn towards the shamanistic vein of supernaturalism. I had a friend who was a strong atheist but was convinced of a supernatural aspect of the world because he had an “experience” as a child where he and his sister had a visitation by a ghost and furniture was floating in his attic.

  • cl

    In comment #1, AIH appears to make a “No True Atheist” argument, yet atheists often state that no dogma determines their position. If this is true, why would one atheist take issue with another just because they accept metaphysical supernaturalism?

  • This kind of reminds me of a conversation I had at an atheist meeting recently (my first). I asked, because of a post Hemant had written here, whether anyone still carried any superstitions, even though they believed in reason and science.

    One guy said that he has superstitions regarding his favorite sports team, and some others chimed in with some benign superstitions they held onto.

    When I let go of the idea of a god, I let go of it all. I sleep with my hand hanging off the side of the bed; I don’t make wishes on found eyelashes; I don’t throw salt over my shoulder; I’d sleep in a haunted house (as long as there were no mice or spiders – those are REAL, y’all). I gave up all the fears and false beliefs of the supernatural, because I had given up the biggest superstition of all. I didn’t need any kind of spirituality or supernatural any more.

    Wow. That was a long winded way of saying that I don’t think that atheists need the spiritual or the supernatural. I’m happier living in reality than I’ve ever been in my life.

  • Dan W

    Not sure what that Ledewitz guy is talking about. Supernatural atheism is an oxymoron, and secularism mixed with religion? What? I also don’t know what this “mysterious otherness” that he talks about is, but I’ve never heard of anything like it.

    I’d hope most atheists wouldn’t need any sort of belief in anything supernatural, or any need for spiritualness. I certainly don’t need either. I’d rather live in reality than live in denial, believing in nonsense that has no evidence.

  • Nemo

    “Power”? “Order”? He sounds like a fascist. And what’s with capitalizing “Our Religions”?

    “Sagan Baby” — now that, I like. We can surely feel “connected” without having to attach any mystical bullshit to it.

  • Richard Wade

    Occam’s Razor is popularly expressed as

    “When you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.”

    But the more original version might be more useful here:

    “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.”

    From what I gather from this discussion, Ledewitz seems to be creating another entity, his “otherness” and he seems to be saying that what makes it necessary is human and social psychological needs.

    I’m not convinced that those needs are intrinsic to humans. He’s making his observations of societies that have been steeped in beliefs in invisible entities for centuries. The “need” might be analogous to the “need” that a heroin addict has for another fix. Once fully clean and recovered, the need is shown to be not intrinsic but acquired by the use of the very entity that was supposed to fulfill the need. It’s circular. Stop going in circles.

    Put simply, god-belief is like a drug; it makes people want it. People don’t have a built-in need for it. The same goes for all other forms of woo.

    Take another measure in a few hundred years, after three generations of not using any gods or woo at all, and see if there is any necessity for multiplying entities. I doubt it.

  • Aj


    In comment #1, AIH appears to make a “No True Atheist” argument, yet atheists often state that no dogma determines their position. If this is true, why would one atheist take issue with another just because they accept metaphysical supernaturalism?

    1) Error.

    2) Difference in the definition of the word “atheist”.

    3) Inferring agency in the meaning of the word “otherness”. As the word “other” is associated with refering to other agents than oneself.

    People are far too hasty on this blog in bringing up that fallacy without asking for clarification. As is the case here, people are accused when not even making an argument, they’re clearly talking about “classification” and “definition”. It’s absolutely nonsensical to accuse someone of a “No True Scotsman” fallacy when they haven’t made an argument.

  • Kurt

    I think that all he is really getting at is that it can be tremendously rewarding for people to be involved in a cause that’s larger than themselves. But what he’s missing is that it doesn’t have to be supernatural to be “meaningful” to us or our fellow humans. Anything from teaching kids to read to rooting for the Green Bay Packers to working at NASA. We (humans that is) seem to do our best work and feel our finest when we’re reaching for a bigger goal beyond just our own day to day survival.

    In this context, I think the atheist stance would be that goals we can see or prove (e.g. is the world better off) are better than ones we can’t (e.g. did we correctly discern the will of a god).

  • Revyloution

    Lediwiz is yet another small piece of evidence supporting the ‘religion as a brain disorder’ theory.

    As I understand it, the supporters postulate that an imbalance in the brain causes susceptibility to mystical explanations for rational events. A perfectly rational person can feel a presence, or attribute personality to natural events. People with this condition are fully capable of being rational, yet they have the unmistakable feeling of intentional causality in the world around them.

    I watched an interview with one man who had an enlarged region in his temporal lobe. He had intense visions of god talking directly to him. What was amazing was that he had a brain rational enough to recognize that these visions were a delusion produced by his brain, and he remained a firm atheist.

    From the descriptions I’ve read, people who ‘suffer’ from these delusions can find them quite comforting. Which leads to the question: If we can isolate and define this part of the brain, should we seek out a treatment? Where do we draw the line from ‘normal’ to ‘imbalance’? Or will someone decide that people like me are the ones with an imbalance, and I should be treated to enlarge that region of the brain?

  • Wow. People think this?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m open to quite a number of extra-human concepts, but any sort of “spirituality” doesn’t fall into that.

  • Derek

    Surely secularism is confused here with atheism. Secularism should be defined as separation of church and state, an idea that religious people can support. Atheists should unite with those people against those that insist that their beliefs have to deny their kids access to alternative ideas, by religious apartheid in schools, and who want laws imposed on everyone regardless of our rejection of (or disinterest in) the God (or gods) in question. Atheists need to form a bloc with secularist believers against their fanatical bretheren. However, debate between atheists and our secularist religious allies on their God is an area that will prove rather unproductive, for atheists. Their insistance on devine revelation that does not require evidence makes this “debate” useless, from our point of view.

  • cl


    I said,

    In comment #1, AIH appears to make a “No True Atheist” argument,

    Sorry you missed the point. When one believer attributes the differences between their position and another believer’s to “differences in definition of the word Christian,” atheists are quick to reply with the “No True Christian” stuff. Yet here (and elsewhere), I hear some atheists criticize others for adhering to a different definition of atheism.

    At any rate, who’s the true atheist? The one who accepts metaphysical naturalism? Or the one who accepts metaphysical supernaturalism? Or both? If both, why do some who accept the former criticize those who accept the latter?

  • Derek

    Atheists, by definition, reject “metaphysical supernaturalism.” But is “metaphysical naturalism” the alternative we should opt for? Does the concept metaphysical not mean beyond the physical? In other words metaphysical naturalism is a contradiction in terms. I guess this term is interpreted by some of us differently. Maybe some of us (possibly me) is/are abusing an agreed terminology, due to ignorance. However, our debates, amongst ourselves, as well as with believers, get bogged down in circular language unless we accept that we are dealing with concepts that have no agreed meaning. The only way around this is to recognise this lack of a shared terminology, and to translate concepts into each others language, and to spell out what other people really mean, rather than what they seem to be saying if they were using our terminology, rather than a different one. Then let them come back and to see if we have put words in their mouths.

  • Aj


    Sorry you missed the point. When one believer attributes the differences between their position and another believer’s to “differences in definition of the word Christian,” atheists are quick to reply with the “No True Christian” stuff. Yet here (and elsewhere), I hear some atheists criticize others for adhering to a different definition of atheism.

    1) “Appears” is not a qualification that makes your observation legitimate.

    2) I’d like specific examples of atheists charging Christians with “No True Scotsman” fallacy in error.

    3) Semantically disagreeing is something entirely different.

  • cl


    “Appears” is not a qualification that makes your observation legitimate.

    Who made you the arbiter of legitimacy? Whether or not you agree with my observation doesn’t concern me at all. It’s just something I noticed. If there’s no official atheist position, one atheist shouldn’t criticize another just because they accept metaphysical supernaturalism. Take it or leave it.

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