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Thinking and Unthinking Faith

Metaphysical questions … draw the mind too far away from physical and observable things, and make it unfit to study them. Yet it is just these physical studies that are most desirable for people to pursue, since they would yield abundant benefits for life.
   —René Descartes

Ignorance is just ignorance. It is not special knowledge of magical causes. It is not special knowledge of what can or cannot be discovered in the long haul of time.
   —Patricia Churchland

Ross Douthat is a conservative American writer. The present essay is a critique of an opinion piece by him published in the New York Times (Douthat, 2021). That article is an exemplar of several themes common in contemporary Christian apologetics, and merits analysis.

The initial item requiring comment is the title, “How to Think Your Way into Faith.” “Think” here means using reason, while “faith” refers to credence in religion. The author states that he is offering “a suggested blueprint for thinking your way into religious belief.”

The boldface highlight from the article is, “Scientific advances in recent centuries have made the idea of God only more plausible.” This essay will examine this assertion.

Why is there Nontheism?

Douthat begins by stating that “many highly educated people” “struggle to make the leap of faith, to reach a state where the supernatural parts become believable.” He asks them to question “the assumption that it’s really so difficult, so impossible, to credit ideas of God and accounts of supernatural happenings.” Unbelief in God is regarded as an “assumption,” and the existence of rational arguments against theism is ignored. This idea continues with the assertion that “materialistic defaults” are “like a spell that’s been cast over modern minds”; there is a “spell of materialism.” Unbelief in a supernatural being with magical powers is depicted as magic itself, a kind of oppositional wizardry.

This introduction raises questions. One presumes, after reading this article, that Douthat is a practicing Christian. Some of the unbelievers whom he describes were once believers (“I’d happily go back to church”). It is likely that all of these present and past believers acquired their religious beliefs, including the ideas of God and other spirits, through indoctrination by their parents. This was an instance of the authoritarian principle of truth or factuality—that one accepts as true any proposition stated by a person or text that he regards as an authority: “Mommy and Daddy believe in God and you do, too. Jesus is God. The Bible is the word of God.” The parents of the (ex)believers did not say: “Ross, here is the evidence for the existence of God. Don’t you find it convincing?”

Given that the majority of Americans have been indoctrinated with Christianity as children, how did Douthat’s correspondents and many others become unbelievers? Was it because they did what Douthat is urging them to do: think about religion, thus not just continue to believe what their parents told them? Did they perceive that the evidential principle for truth—that one’s credence in a proposition is proportional to the evidence for that proposition—applies not only to secular matters, but also to assertions that spirits exist, and to statements about their nature? Did they come to understand “piety as an act of the will undertaken in defiance of the reasoning faculties”? Did they think their way out of religious belief (like the nonbelievers documented in Babinski, 2003, pp. 297-363)—and does Douthat now hope to reverse that process?

God as an Explanatory Hypothesis

The author begins his first principal argument by stating that in the past, “religious ideas seemed to provide an explanation for the most important features of reality.” (At which point one wonders: what are “the features of reality,” and how did Douthat determine their relative importance?) Douthat writes:

First, the idea that the universe was created with intent, intelligence and even love explained why the world in which you found yourself had the appearance of a created thing: not just orderly, law-bound and filled with complex systems necessary for human life, but also vivid and beautiful and awesome in a way that resembles and yet exceeds the human capacity for art.

The argument here is that the half-dozen features of the universe listed suggest that it is an artifact. The first feature is the alleged orderliness of the world. Now, the successions of day and night, and of the seasons, create cyclical order that is obvious and important for human beings. But earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, and hurricanes are not orderly, and human beings have not existed for a long enough time to observe the movements of the continents, the elevation and erosion of mountains, the filling and emptying of inland seas, or the effects of an asteroid striking the Earth.

The universe began in a state of total disorder (Stenger, 2009, pp. 248-50). As the nascent universe expanded and cooled, order began to appear at scales from the subatomic to the galactic (Harland, 2003, pp. 230-237). But no design organized in space or time the formation of atoms, dust, stars, planets, and galaxies; which particles and bodies joined one another depended upon their random positions and movements. Stars and planets have continued to form for nearly 14 billion years; there was no single act of creation. And all existing matter was formed from pre-existing matter-energy; there was no production of matter from nothing.

The universe continues to be largely disorderly, and the more that scientists learn about it, the more disorder that they find. Astronomical observations interpreted using the prevalent theories of gravity require physicists to postulate that most of the matter in the universe is amorphous dark matter (Harland, 2003, pp. 189-190, 225). Stars and galaxies sometimes collide with one another, and stars may devour the planets around them. Stars eventually consume their “fuel,” hydrogen, and collapse, often with various disorderly outcomes such as explosion. The features of stars, planets, and galaxies are highly variable. C. S. Lewis was so nonplussed by the absence of order in the planets of the solar system that he ascribed to God a liking for disorder: the lack of planetary regularity, he wrote, “has just the queer twist about it that real things have” (Lewis, 1952/1996, p. 48 [book II, chapter 2]).

The fact that some order is present is not evidence of manufacture. Chaos is not the only alternative to intelligent design. Order and complexity develop in the absence of any sign of intelligent direction (Bossomaier and Green, 2000; McFarland, 2016; Mitchell, 2009; Smith and Morowitz, 2016; Stenger, 2009, pp. 248-250). The perception of the universe as an artifact is a presumption; contrivance is an “appearance,” not a demonstrable fact.

Next, the use of the word law to describe the regularities observed in the behaviors of the components of the universe is inappropriate and misleading. In ordinary use, this term requires that there be a law-giver, and also that the subjects of the law be capable of choosing their courses of action. The concept is about human behavior, and is unsuitable for the study of nature. Moreover, a law is a command and cannot be true or false. The universe is not “law-bound”; its components do not act in accord with decrees imposed on them by something outside of the universe. The “laws”—better, models—of physics are indeed restrictive; physicists limit themselves by adhering to a principle that their models be independent of position in space or time (Stenger, 2006). Regularities in chemistry result from intrinsic properties of the elements and their compounds (McFarland, 2016).

By “complex systems necessary for human life,” Douthat may be referring to the determinants that produce a climate with moderate temperatures, to the water cycle, and to the web of organisms that supply human beings with oxygen, food, and material for artifacts. But the fact that these things are present in the habitat of human beings is utterly unsurprising: human beings would not exist in the absence of systems necessary for human life. The presence of these systems is not evidence of manufacture, nor is their absence on the other planets in the solar system evidence of impotence. (This subject will be revisited further below.)

By stating that the world is beautiful “in a way that resembles … the human capacity for art,” the author seems to suggest that the beauty of nature is an artifact, as is art. Here, however, he is writing about the responses of human beings to the universe: they find it “vivid and beautiful and awesome.” But the occurrence of these responses in no way suggests that the universe is an artifact. Their existence can be explained without postulating that nature was created (Chatterjee, 2014). And the universe conceived of as a naturalistic entity evokes the same reactions.

This first part of Douthat’s argument is an instance of the purposefulness fallacy that infects creationism: anything in nature that is beneficial to human beings was made that way for that purpose by the Creator (“created with intent”), and therefore is evidence that the universe is a “created thing.” But interpreting states and events in theistic terms is not evidence of the truth of theism. And the real direction of creation was the reverse of that proposed by Douthat: the universe was not manufactured with human beings in mind—this is vanity; human beings evolved under the influence of their environments to be adapted to those environments.

Douthat continues:

Second, the idea that human beings are fashioned, in some way, in the image of the universe’s creator explained why … [you are] an embodied creature with an animal form, and yet your consciousness also seemed to stand outside it, with a peculiar sense of immaterial objectivity … constantly analyzing, tinkering, appreciating, passing moral judgment.

The existence of consciousness (in the sense of mind rather than awareness), performing the activities Douthat lists, does not in itself suggest that consciousness is like a feature of a deity. This is a supposition of theists. The notions that consciousness is “outside” of the body, and that objectivity in analysis, fiddling (with ideas?), and so on is “immaterial,” have no basis. They express a presupposition that consciousness is not a result of “animal form,” but is a separate kind of created entity. Interpreting states and events in theistic terms is not evidence of the truth of theism. (The subject of consciousness will be revisited further below.) Once again, the direction of creation was the reverse of that proposed by Douthat: when people imagined gods, they imagined them as beings with the features and abilities of humans (but with the addition of magical powers).

Third, Douthat writes:

The common religious assumption that humans are material creatures connected to a supernatural plane explained why your world contained so many signs of a higher order of reality, the incredible variety of experiences described as “mystical” or “numinous”…

Many people at times experience incidents of thoughts and emotions that are different from those of every day. Sometimes these have a strong emotional effect. The contents of these episodes are variable in nature and perhaps not readily classified. Examples include “feelings of oneness and universal love” (Douthat, 2021), feeling aware of some vague entity greater than oneself, and a state in which one’s awareness of oneself and her surroundings is much diminished, and the activity in which she is engaging seems to be almost all that there is. More information is needed about the contents of these episodes, the circumstances in which they occur, the percipients’ responses to them, and their physiological (including cerebral) correlates. They should be distinguished (which some current research does not do) from thoughts explicitly based on learned ideas about spirits (Hay, 2006).

Now, many people are primed with ideas of God and other spirits who inhabit a realm that is more exalted than the world, and who at times reveal their presence to human beings. Such people may interpret these unusual incidents as mystical (“having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence; involving or having the nature of an individual’s direct subjective communication with God or ultimate reality”) or numinous (“supernatural; filled with a sense of the presence of divinity”) (definitions from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary). These are interpretations; the difference between “I had an unusual feeling” and “I sensed God” may lie in the individuals’ predispositions to belief. (See also Metzinger, 2009, p. 17.)

Likewise, Douthat’s mentioned “encounters with beings” believed to be “gods and demons, ghosts and fairies” (and others) may also be instances of interpretation, but he does not provide details about the events to which he refers and they cannot be analyzed. Misperception, misinterpretation, and deception, including self-deception, may explain some incidents of belief that one has encountered something supernatural (for example, will-o’-the-wisps conceived of as ghosts). Reports of all these mystical or numinous incidents not only are influenced by interpretation, but they also are subject to the selective character of memory (Squire, 1995).

The fact that “mystical” experiences can be produced by obsessive meditation, deprivation of sleep, cerebral diseases (Alexander, 2012), and ingestion of substances that act on the brain, suggests that they are the products of “material creatures.” Focusing one’s attention on a physical activity can induce “spiritual” feelings of detachment. This may be a clue as to why some kinds of feelings evolved: when one is fleeing danger, it might be beneficial to feel detached from oneself and one’s surroundings (hence not distracted) and fully absorbed in the activity.

The claims that these experiences are manifestations of a “plane” that is not material, and “signs of a higher order of reality,” are assertions, not facts. And the valuation of these experiences as “higher” is an instance of believers in spirits alleging that the beings that they imagine, and their “knowledge” about these beings, are more exalted than the real world. This is spiritualists vaunting their beliefs. They conceive of the beings that they postulate as more powerful, more knowledgeable, and (for some) better behaved than humans, and they wrongly suppose the god or gods to be the originators of moral rules. That is how they can call them “higher.” In this vein, Douthat has told the reader that he regards viewing the universe as an artifact, the idea that consciousness is not material, and the interpretation of diverse unusual experiences as of supernatural origin, as “the most important features of reality.”

If one accepts purported visitations by spirits as veridical, the question arises: are all such experiences of equal validity and dignity? Are the mutually discordant reported visions of Paul the Apostle, Muhammad, and Joseph Smith all genuine? Are the “inspired” Gospels on the same “supernatural plane” as the “New Bible in the Words of Jehovih” [sic], Oahspe (1882), and other works allegedly produced by spirit writing? When the Apostles and early Christians “spoke in tongues,” were they manifesting the same “higher order” as people who nowadays do the same at fundamentalist meetings? No interpretation of these things in terms of indemonstrable spirits can be verified or refuted. Hence the idea of experiencing spirits creates an “incredible variety” of occasions for arbitrary theological fussiness and unresolvable sectarian quarrels.

Douthat’s statements, in the argument just analyzed, that an alleged orderliness in nature, and consciousness, are “explained” by belief in a creator of the universe are false. He is postulating acts of magic. The “explanation” of anything as a product of some indemonstrable entity is an unprovable assertion; it does not state any causal process that can be verified, and so explains nothing. Removing reference to or belief in such an entity changes nothing about one’s understanding of the nature of things; his knowledge of their demonstrable properties, relations with other things, and history remains the same. Interpreting states and events in theistic terms is not evidence of the truth of theism.

It is true that a major cause of belief in spirits is that formerly they provided pseudoexplanations of things, which was comforting because the believer falsely thought that she understood things when in fact she did not, and because she imagined that she could influence the controlling spirits to act favorably toward her. A major cause of the erosion of belief in spirits is that science explains in a verifiable way the causes of innumerable states, capabilities, and events that formerly were attributed to spirits.

This is part of what Douthat has in mind when he writes, “I do not mean to claim that 500 years of scientific progress have left the world’s great religions untouched or unchallenged.” As an example, he states that the idea of biological evolution (which he pejoratively labels “Darwinism,” as if it were the personal idea of a single individual) “created still unresolved [after 160 years!] problems for the Christian doctrine of the Fall of Man.” (A more accurate statement would be that anthropology—not the fact of human evolution—showed the falsity of the Judeo-Christian myth of an ancestral couple from whom all humans are descended, to which myth early Christians welded their conception of Jesus.) The author acknowledges that “many supernatural-seeming events can now be given purely material explanations.” But the supernatural “seemingness” of these events was just one interpretation placed on them in ignorance of their true nature, at a time when almost anything out of the ordinary was attributed to spirits.

Science as a Pointer to God

Bringing in science leads to a second part of the article, where the assertion is made that “there are also many important ways in which the progress of science … [has] strengthened the reasons to entertain the idea of God.”

The first example offered is the fine-tuning fallacy. Science, Douthat states, has shown a “seeming calibration for the emergence of life” of “physical laws.” The underlying presupposition of this kind of argument is that the Creator (whose existence is tacitly assumed) had an idea of human beings and fashioned a universe in which they could exist. (Here one wonders: why create a vast universe to accommodate, after an interval of nearly 14 billion years, the inhabitants of a single planet?) Hence Douthat is able to think that the “fittedness of the universe to human life” is “strange.” But as noted above, the fact that humans exist on a planet and in a universe where their existence is possible is utterly unsurprising, and in no way suggests that either humans or the universe are artifacts. It is as if Douthat found it strange that he speaks English, the language that he needs to communicate with the people around him, and not one of the hundreds of other languages. (For more comments on the fine-tuning argument, see: Reynolds, 2018. For physicists’ refutations of it, see: Krauss, 2012, p. 122 and Stenger, 2011. For discussion of the suitability of the universe to life, see Krauss, 2012, pp. 121-139.)

The second example is an instance of god-of-the-gaps apologetics: “the difficulty of figuring out how physical processes alone could create the lived reality of conscious life.” The idea seems to be that if science has not (completely) explained something, then that is evidence that it was divinely created! But like other difficulties in understanding the workings of the brain, the nature of consciousness is amenable to observation, experimentation, and the creation of hypotheses (Churchland, 2013, pp. 56-60, 225-255; Damasio, 2010; Dennett, 1991; Lane, 2009, pp. 232-259; Metzinger, 2009). Mental acts that previously were held to be inexplicable on the basis of naturalism have been and are being characterized by neuroscience. Like other mental processes, consciousness (awareness, “the appearance of a world” [Metzinger, 2009, pp. 15, 17]) requires activation of specific cerebral structures and regions (Damasio, 2010, pp. 23-25, 243-249; Metzinger, 2009, pp. 15-65). One can form theories about its evolutionary history (Dennett, 1991, pp. 171-226; Feinberg and Mallatt, 2016; Metzinger, 2009, pp. 54-62). There is no objective reason to believe that it is not a physiological process.

The so-called “‘hard problem’ of consciousness” that Douthat uses to promote theism is a false problem. We already know what consciousness is. It is not a thing, and it is not external to the electrochemical functioning of the brain. (See Reynolds, 2019 for refutation of an apologetic argument that a soul must be postulated to explain consciousness and self-consciousness, and Reynolds, 2018 for refutation of a theistic argument that immaterial minds exist.)

As part of his argument Douthat misrepresents the naturalistic view of consciousness, alleging that “the failure to discover consciousness in our dissected tissue” is the ground for one particular naturalistic idea of “conscious experience and selfhood.” First, neurobiologists do not attempt to identify a structure in “dissected tissue” that by itself produces a particular mental process; they know that the brain does not work that way. It was Descartes, thinking with his religious beliefs, who proposed that the conscious soul was focused in “a certain part of the body where it exercises its functions more particularly than in all the others,” namely, the pineal body (Descartes, 1650/1948, pp. 28-29).

Next, the naturalistic theory to which Douthat refers apparently is the understanding that the brain constructs our ideas of the external world and of the presence of a self (Metzinger, 2009). One’s apprehension of reality is not like what is produced by a video camera. Douthat calls these constructions “illusions.” But the panorama produced by the brain corresponds to what is outside ourselves, and enables us to interact effectively, reliably, and in complex ways with what is outside; evolution would not have produced something less. And the construction of an “I” is required for the human animal and others to act for their own preservation. What is illusory are the notions that a cerebral function is immaterial and evidence of a creator spirit.

A common tactic of apologists is to reduce rational naturalistic arguments to religious behavior, and Douthat calls the idea of construction of perceived reality by the brain “a leap of faith.” But the neuroscientific theory is the result of scientific observation and reasoning; it is not analogous to the other “leap of faith” he cites: people “struggle … to reach a state [of credulity] where the supernatural parts [of theism] become believable.” (This seems a slog instead of a leap.)

Douthat asserts that the construction theory seems “less … reasonable” than “a traditional religious assumption that mind precedes matter,” and returns to the notion that “the irreducibility [presumably to neurophysiology] of personal experience” is “proof that consciousness came first.” But nothing in neuroscience points to an indemonstrable being; all demonstrable mental processes occur in brains (this has been known since the 4th century BCE). The fact that there is not yet a detailed scientific description of perception and consciousness is irrelevant to notions of a disembodied consciousness that brought matter into existence. Interpreting states and events in theistic terms is not evidence of the truth of theism. And, once again, the direction of creation was the reverse of that proposed by Douthat: evolution produced nervous systems, then brains, then brains capable of the process called consciousness, each of which is an adaptation.

Sixteen days after Douthat’s opinion piece was published, another writer for the Times, David Brooks, published a column reporting recent discoveries about cerebral function (Brooks, 2021). He stated that neuroscience has shown that “people … construct their own realities, and live within their own constructions.” He quoted a neuroscientist: “Perceptions come from the inside out just as much [as], if not more, than from the outside in.” The conclusion was that this is “the closest we can get to registering reality.”

The third example that Douthat offers as science promoting theism is: “scientific progress … doubles as evidence that our minds have something in common with whatever mind designed the universe.” Hence: “The God hypothesis is constantly vindicated by the comprehensibility of the universe, and the capacity of our reason to unlock its many secrets.” This is specious: the existence of the vacuous and indemonstrable designing mind is presupposed, and the fact that human beings can reason and can make discoveries about the nature of the universe is no evidence whatsoever of the existence of such a mind. Interpreting states and events in theistic terms is not evidence of the truth of theism. These abilities of human beings are products of evolution, and they developed because reasoning and understanding aided the survival of species that were ancestors of Homo sapiens and of sapient man himself. The ability to think evolved because it promoted reproduction. The universe was not “made for our minds to understand”—this is vanity.

All of these efforts to make science a pointer to religion are nugatory. Because of their different principles for determining factuality—evidential versus authoritarian—science and religion are incompatible (Coyne, 2015). Over centuries, religionists have striven to suppress, oppose, silence, deny, ignore, conceal, obfuscate, denigrate, and (as here) appropriate science and its discoveries. This has not stopped the weakening of credulousness and the strengthening of evidential reasoning because truth has more power than fantasy.

Why do People Believe in Spirits?

Returning to “mystical experiences” and “bizarre psychic phenomena,” Douthat asserts that their persistence at the present time requires a “concession” from unbelievers to acknowledge their continued existence. Indeed, the proportion of the public who state that they have had a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening” is reported to be increasing, to half the population polled. (Belief in “spiritual energy” located in material things, in astrology, and in having been in the presence of revenants were each reported by roughly one-quarter of the respondents [Pew Research Center, 2009].) Numinous feelings are not dependent upon whether the individual lives in an age of faith or an age of reason (Douthat’s terms). The current extensive creation and dissemination of mind-altering drugs regarded as means of recreation has resulted in innumerable “psychic phenomena” that users sometimes interpret as “spiritual.”

The author states:

When today’s evolutionary theorists go searching for a reason people believe so readily in spiritual powers and nonhuman minds, they are also making a concession to religion’s plausibility—because most of our evolved impulses and appetites correspond directly to something in reality itself.

Douthat has not done enough research. There are books that describe how human beings acquired an innate tendency to believe in nonexistent spirits (Atran, 2002; Barrett, 2004; Boyer, 2001; Guthrie, 1993). A principal reason was that thinking that a sentient agent was present was protective, even when there was no such agent: an ancestral hominid was safer if she thought that a movement of branches was caused by a predator rather than by the wind. Another process was interpreting nature—which was unfathomable, often frightening, and sometimes injurious—in familiar, understandable, comforting, human terms by populating it with, and attributing control of it to, imaginary beings who have human senses, human thoughts, human emotions, and human behavior. The tendency to believe in spirits does “correspond directly to something in reality itself,” but the correspondence does not entail correct interpretation of reality.

Douthat’s final argument for the existence of “spiritual forces” is “strange happenings at the threshold of death”: so-called near-death experiences. Spiritualists interpret these as evidence of the presence within each person of an indwelling spirit, a soul. This is an idea separate from that of external spirits including gods. There is an extensive literature about these experiences, and it would lead us too far afield to address them here. (For refutation of the concept of souls, see Musolino, 2015; see also Churchland, 2013, pp. 44-53).

The author states that there is evidence of “a panoply of spiritual forces that seem to intervene unpredictably in our experience.” But if there are spirits and they are demonstrating their presence to humans, why must there be an “incredible variety” of manifestations? A small number of kinds of representations, recognizably alike and reported by many different persons (a line from the musical comedy The Book of Mormon comes to mind: “You had the Hell dream, didn’t you?”), would be more impressive and perhaps could be used to ground belief in spirits. But there is no system of spiritualism founded on the pooled “mystical experiences” of individuals. Instead, what one finds is that “psychic phenomena” are interpreted according to the ideas of the particular culture in which they are reported. They are not revelations of a “higher order of reality,” but uncommon mental events that some people try to explain in terms of their society’s notions about spirits. As Douthat states, there were “religious structures through which those experiences used to be interpreted.”

Unbelief versus Credulity

Leaving his arguments for theism, Douthat observes that “religious belief offers important kinds of hope and consolation.” He dismisses unbelief thus: it “has its own comforts” because it “whispers, well, at least you don’t have to spend time thinking about” “a whole vast zone of ideas and arguments, practices and demands, supernatural perils and metaphysical complexities.” But returning to the beginning of this essay, how many of those who do not believe in religion or spirits arrived at their unbelief by thinking about the “zone” of religion? By applying an evidential criterion for truth to authoritarian “ideas and arguments”? It is unlikely that Douthat spends time cogitating about the “practices” of Hinduism or the “metaphysical complexities” of Buddhism. Why does he tell unbelievers “actually you do” have to spend time thinking about religion—that is, one or more of a plethora of systems based on imaginary beings (a category that may include Moses [Murdock, 2014], Jesus [Carrier, 2014], and Muhammad [Spencer, 2021]), that are complex, not believable, changeable, and mutually antagonistic?

And one might list other “comforts” of unbelief, such as:

  • feeling that one has an objective, verifiable, and adaptational understanding of the universe, rather than one grounded on ancient priestly lore, tales of unnatural events, and a false, antique dualism;
  • a moral compass guided by principles of justice, humanism, and respect for nature, and not by sexism, racism, homophobia, obsession with hymens and conceptuses, using religion as a tool to become rich, conviction that Satan is responsible for things of which one disapproves, enmity toward science, fear of truth, demand for privilege, lust to force one’s beliefs and desired behavior on everybody else, using religiosity as a tool for election to public office, proclaiming an irreligious demagogue who exemplifies each of the cardinal sins to be a great agent of God, rejection of democracy, and morbid and destructive apocalypticism, all of which are prominent features of present-day American Christianity and are justified by believers as fruits of that religion (Barrett-Fox, 2016; Bivins, 2008; Du Mez, 2020; Einstein, 2008; Griffith, 2018; Hedges, 2008; Hendricks, 2005; Joshi, 2020; Posner, 2020; Ranke-Heinemann, 1990; Stecker, 2011; Stewart, 2020; Tisby, 2020; Whitehead & Perry, 2020; Wills, 2000);
  • the absence of fear of vainglorious, demanding, and punitive spirits who judge one’s every deed and thought;
  • specifically, absence of fear of ritual impurity—of offending the spirits by eating certain foods, engaging in certain normal behaviors, having certain normal thoughts and emotions, menstruating, and giving birth, or by not performing ritual acts; and
  • freedom from countless angry “arguments … between religious traditions and within them, that aren’t easily resolved” (better, aren’t ever resolved; we are looking at millennia here) because they are quarrels about imaginary beings and imaginary happenings, and because many of the disputants are certain that they alone possess absolute truth, granted them by the spirits.

With respect to the last point, observe that Christianity requires belief not only in its tripartite “one god,” but also in countless other spirits: angels, devils, and souls, as well as, for some sects, anomalous beings such as Jesus’ mother. They all must be described and localized, individually or in groups, according to the lights of each of the many sects and of individual Christians. As the ground for some of their opinions (Douthat’s example is “Genesis is an excellent biology textbook”), Christians cite a set of ancient texts about whose components, importance, and interpretation they have never agreed. Other diverse opinions are derived from many men who have claimed Christian authority throughout a period of 2,000 years. The result is innumerable opinions. They are influenced by familiarity, ignorance about the religion, pride, self-righteousness, prejudice, and individual and institutional desire for social and political power. They are not aligned by the Holy Spirit, and believing that their differences can be “resolved” is like imagining that when a large number of pins is thrown into the air, they will land all parallel to one another.

Nearing the end, Douthat repeats his assertions that “the world … presents considerable evidence of an originating intelligence presiding over a law-bound world well made for our minds to understand, and at the same time a panoply of spiritual forces.” He seems to think that he has shown that “atheism is actually the prejudice held against the evidence.” But “there’s all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation” (Coyne, 2015, p. 210). Douthat has not offered a scintilla of evidence that the universe is a “well-made” artifact. He interprets certain features of the universe as artifacts, tells us that this interpretation is part of traditional (Christian) theism—which is his personal theism—and asks us to believe that this is evidence for a Great Artificer. He has not offered a scintilla of evidence that consciousness is not a result of “physical processes alone.” He interprets consciousness as a nonphysical thing, tells us that this interpretation is part of traditional (Christian) theism—which is his personal theism—and asks us to believe that this is evidence that consciousness has no material basis. He has not offered a scintilla of evidence that there are numerous spirits who demonstrate their presence. He interprets certain thoughts and emotions that some people have transiently as perceptions of spirits, tells us that this interpretation is part of traditional (Christian) theism—which is his personal theism—and asks us to believe that this is evidence of indemonstrable, magical beings. This is “thinking that an adequate explanation can be based on what is personally appealing rather than on what stands the test of empirical study” (Coyne, 2015, p. 226). Douthat has failed to show “that reality is probably not as materialism describes it.”

Instead, Douthat’s arguments illustrate how creationism prevents a correct understanding of reality. By introducing spurious elements of design and intention, it makes impossible an accurate view of the nature of things, their history, and the relations among them. It is like assigning structure and purpose to a sand dune.

Douthat’s text itself expresses the conjectural, nonevidential nature of spiritualistic pseudoexplanations. The universe has the “appearance” of an artifact. The existence of a supernatural plane is an “assumption.” Consciousness “seemed” to be immaterial. There is a “seeming” adjustment of “physical laws” to enable life to exist. The notion that thinking was possible before matter existed is an “assumption“; “we assume that objective reality is already a mirror of mind.” The existence of God can be viewed as a “hypothesis.” Odd experiences were “interpreted” through “religious structures.” “Experiences … seem like hauntings and possessions, psychic or premonitory events,” and “spiritual forces … seem … to intervene in our experience.” One is “postulating” an “uncreated divine intelligence.” (All italics are added.) Interpreting states and events in theistic terms is not evidence of the truth of theism.

Bare credulity is no longer intellectually acceptable except to the devout, and apologists for spiritualism must allege that they have evidence of spirits in order to seem “reasonable and sensible and modern.” But statements of opinions and beliefs are evidence only that the writer holds those opinions and beliefs, not that they are true. This article, like all apologetics, founders because of the simple fact that it attempts to demonstrate spirits, which spiritualism itself defines as indemonstrable.

Works Cited

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