Is God Dead?

Via Benjamin Riggs
on Dec 15, 2010
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…or Are We Looking In The Wrong Place?

Do you believe that spirituality and atheism can co-exist?

Awhile back I went through this phase.

Everyday I would watch Atheists debate believers on Youtube. I wasn’t shopping or curious—I just found it entertaining. Over the course of a few debates, I noticed that I more often than not agreed with the atheist.

This surprised me! I may not have believed in a “created the world in 144 hours” kind of God, but I did fancy myself a religious/spiritual person. Naturally, I began to wonder why I related more with the atheists than the representatives of the religious community.

It didn’t take long to answer that question.

Photo of Dan Dennett by Dan Lurie

The arguments made by the religious people in these debates seldom, if ever, reflected what I thought of when I thought of religion. The religious person and I simply defined religion differently. They seemed to define religion as a system of beliefs, or a collection of tenets that they held to be true. On the other hand, I look at religion as a process of experimentation that leads me to a direct experience of truth. Therefore, the atheist was not, in my mind, arguing against religion; rather they were in opposition to an inherited set of preconceived beliefs or an ideology that was not supported by evidence.

They tend to cite the beliefs of fundamentalist across the board as a way of suggesting that religion is an evil, ignorant, and corrosive thread that humanity could do with out. Of course, I agree that any belief system that forces you to fly a plane into a building, or have 30 underage wives is ridiculous. However, I am a religious person, and am in no danger of participating in either of the before mentioned activities! It is easy to refute religion when you make a straw-man of the subject, but I question whether or not any good can come out of such a shallow and meaningless discussion…

The atheist in these debates included some big names. Many of them had an air of condescension that I did not appreciate. However, there were two that I came to enjoy watching. Both Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris had depth and weight to their arguments, and articulated their position in a respectful manner.

So here is the discussion I would like to have…

Is spirituality a fairy tale, or an expression of the most fundamental truth in your life?

Do you consider yourself a religious or spiritual person? Or would you consider yourself an atheist? Do you find the arguments against religion in these videos even apply to you? Do you find yourself agreeing with many of the points made in the talk below? Do you think that religion has a deeper meaning, which is simply being ignored in these discussions? Or do you believe that religion is merely an outdated way of understanding the world we live in? What place do you think religion has in the 21st century? If any? Do you believe that spirituality and atheism can co-exist? Perhaps compliment each other? Maybe even join forces and address fundamentalism?

Or add anything else you would like to share along these lines…

I have chosen to embed a 10 minute video of Sam Harris providing an argument against religion in general. The video runs out in the middle of his spill, but if you wish to watch the rest I am sure Youtube will make that easy enough. But I think the 10 minute snippet provides ample information for our discussion. I have also provided links to several other videos, including a debate between world renown intellectual Christopher Hitchens and Al Sharpton, that you may find surprising and hilarious! The Dan Dennett link is extremely intelligent.

I look forward to reading your comments below.

Rick Warren at T.E.D. speaking on the Purpose Driven Life

And click here to watch Dan Dennett respond to Rick Warren at T.E.D.

Click here to watch Al Sharpton vs. Christopher Hitchens

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About Benjamin Riggs

Ben Riggs is the author of Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West. He is also the director of the Refuge Meditation Group in Shreveport, LA. Ben writes extensively about Buddhist & Christian spirituality for Elephant Journal, and The Web of Enlightenment. To keep up with all of his work follow him on Facebook or Twitter. He also teaches at Explore Yoga. Click here to listen to my podcast.


52 Responses to “Is God Dead?”

  1. BenRiggs says:

    In my mind religion is a fundamental human need. Not necessarily the specifics of a particular dogma, but the need to communicate on an essential level. I think religion not just some kind of new age spirituality is necessary because, it brings with it tradition and lineage. Religion is process of experimentation, and throwing out the findings of the past couple of thousands of years is a mistake that I think my generation might be too quick to make!

  2. JMWII says:

    OK…the guy in the video really did not know anything about Theology. I found error after error on his part, such as these two words in the same sentence – Gospel & Decades. The Gospel does not cover a time frame of decades.

    Religion is absolutely essential for humans. Period!

  3. tamingauthor says:

    Thanks, Ben, for posting a thoughtful and thought-provoking article.

    You have zeroed in on a key problem—the differing views represented by those who speak on behalf of faith, and the varying levels of sophistication they demonstrate when it comes to their ability to describe faith.

    As you note, it is easy for Dennett, Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens et al to toss up straw man versions of religion and then knock them down. When I listen to them I can only chuckle as they do not speak to religion as I know it but rather to a fantasy they have concocted.

    You have discerned a key factor when it comes to religion… Are we talking about an iconic religion in which blind faith suffices or are we talking about a religion in which one moves through stages of observation and relationship with the divine?

    The discussion with the atheists comes to a crashing halt when it comes to epistemology. Their style of "blind faith" precludes revelation of divine existence and precludes observation of divine existence. Their premises close the door on all possibilities. This impasse makes the discussion very difficult, if not impossible.

    The culprit on the atheist side is poor science and even worse philosophy. One can cut to the chase and boil the conflict down to the issue of the nature of consciousness.

    With consciousness fully understood there is no further debate. With such understanding, science and religion converge and we are able to understand epistemology in a manner that encompasses religion. Problem solved. One can meet the standards of science and the standards of faith. The "separate magisterium" of Gould folds up and we have unity in the area of human knowledge.

    And, if we follow this trail with diligence, we reach a point where epistemology and ontology converge. The result is a new understanding of the entirety of creation. One is able to move past limited paradigms to an all inclusive knowledge or enlightenment.

    Perhaps the best questions with which to start are slightly different than the common approach. Perhaps it is best to take the premises of materialism or naturalism and ask why the atheists mentioned subscribe to those beliefs. When one treats their belief system in the same manner they treat religion, the possibility, the necessity, of a new dialogue comes to the fore.

    How would you describe the premises of materialism? How would you explore those beliefs so as to ascertain their veracity? Interesting exercise.

  4. Nathan K. says:

    I consider myself a spiritual person, but not necessarily religious. I don’t claim any religion because I feel like it would (1) make me vulnerable to stereotypes and (2) mean that I agree with any given religion 100 percent, which I don’t. The arguments against Christianity, I believe not only apply to me, but to everybody, atheist, Christian, agnostic, whatever. To fully understand what we believe in, it seems awfully healthy to not limit ourselves to only the arguments that we agree with.
    Overall, we can see all of Harris’ arguments, although biased, take apart and analyze Christianity, which is important anyway. He made lots of valid arguments against Christianity, but his main one seemed to be, “it doesn’t seem logical to me, so it can’t be true.” On the other hand, the vast majority of Christians I’ve come across argue that it seems logical to them, therefore validates its truth; basically the same argument as Harris.
    I believe that religion can mean a lot of things for different people. I see it as a function that provides a path to happiness and meaning. It gives people a sense of purpose, it, for the most part, gives them a healthy, ethical way of living (compassion, altruism, etc…), aids in decision-making, encourages one to think about something greater than themselves, stimulates thought on interesting, philosophical, spiritual topics, and, as mentioned above, helps us understand the world we live in – no matter what era in time we may be in. Religious philosophy can be applied to any subject, current or not.
    Religion, to my opinion, is a positive thing. The problem, however, comes when we think of any given religion as fundamental and strive for evangelism (not limited to just Christianity), where we go to another place, tell locals that our religion has more validity than their own and do our damnedest to change their mind, all for brownie points from a higher being. It would be much more effective to make the religion accessible, hence, giving people the opportunity to learn more if they would like to.
    Spirituality and atheism can definitely complement each other. Wouldn’t it seem monotonous to mindlessly follow a spiritual path without deepening our knowledge through other points of view? A healthy skepticism can actually reinforce one’s belief by taking into consideration the critic’s arguments from an objective point of view and then applying knowledge one already has to counter the argument, giving the opponent a chance to do the same thing…which I suppose is the point of debates to begin with.

  5. BenRiggs says:

    Do you believe that both the true atheist and true religious share a path based on experimentation? And if so do you think they could set aside idealogical points of view, you know the 'party lines' and join in the search for truth?

  6. Great thought-provoking blog, as usual, Ben.

    Some of the ancient Yoga sages believed in a very personal God and others believed in an impersonal God, or God as simply the life-force of the universe.

    Many religious thinkers define God as “that which is unknowable, but which drives us towards love and goodness”.

    Given this commonly accepted definition, almost everyone believes in God. In the end what matters most is that we all agree there IS some universal drive toward making the world a better place, not where that drive comes from.

    Athiest or not, almost everyone believes in Right and Wrong, Good and Evil. This belief alone can be called "God", by my definition above. Or you can call it "No God" because it's not a "being."

    After that it's all semantics.

    Even the nuns taught me that "God is Love". Does "love" sound like a being to you?

    Call it "God" or "No God". It makes not a hills of beans worth of difference if we all believe in Love anyway.

    God is Love.

    No God is also Love.

    Bob W.

  7. Roy says:

    Yes Ben if you really believe in love it does change something, It changes you. If you truly believe in love your actions will show it. So I believe that the belief and experience go hand in hand, because if you really believe it will show in your experience. The kind of love that is needed is the kind that asks for nothing in return. You can not let peoples responce to you affect your behavior. You cannot say I was kind to someone and they were mean to me, so love is baloney. In the end the only thing we can change is ourself and love has the power to do that.

  8. Robert Bishop says:

    As an atheist for approximately 3 years now I see it as the height of humanity and intellect to hold this position.
    I never really believed in monotheism and found Buddhism congenial with its spiritual version of atheism (and its respect for all life forms not only human)
    Unfortunately, all are "just so stories" told with great imagination and passion but they are untrue and deeply false-even Buddhism.
    When monotheism hides behind "faith" as a way to deal with nonsense,and the gobbledegook talk of enlightenment in Buddhism ends with the bromide:
    Beforenlightenment, rivers were rivers,mountains were mountains,during enlightenment rivers were no longer rivers and mountains no longer mountains,after enlightenement rivers were rivers and mountains were mountains….."
    afraid someting is up and even the personable laugh of the Dalai Lama cannot make it right (that is when he's not making homophobic remarks to rival any Catholic pontiff)

  9. Padma Kadag says:

    Atheists do believe in a god…and I don't say this because I think that they should. Anyone that acts out of hope towards future events or the possibility of future events is reifying an eternity and the hope that events to come turn out the way they want them to turn out. So their behavior and thought process is acting in accordance with making sure that things turn out the way they want them to turn out though they have no evidence that there is a future. That is relying on a God.

  10. Robert Bishop says:

    I am aware that I am mixing Zen,Tibetan Lamaism along with Therevadin influences,but I think the basic arguments against Buddhism holds- even with this most seemingly humanistic religion warping takes place.
    I do not accept the distinction between religion versus spirituality,etymologically the root words are the same and conceptually they amount to the same thing.
    The only distinction could be that one is more or less "objective" whereas the other is "subjective"
    The much vaunted sociological superiority of Buddhism is not borne out by statisitics,of even those on the humane treatment of animals (one of my initial attractors)
    Advanced capitalist societies with increasing wealth and secular education,shows the model for improvement in living and psychological conditions.

  11. Robert Bishop says:

    I have benefited greatly from meditation but even here some scepticism is needed:
    I remember seeing an ABC show (Catalyst) on comparisons of treatments for blood pressure-TM meditation was contrasted with medication,and a very pragmatic and wise GP stated, which do you think would be the most practical and achievable for my patients, a pill that takes up minutes dailyor 2 sessions of meditation of 20 minutes each (I can hear readers of Shamballa Sun gasping as they read this comment!)
    We are still faced with the challenges of life and Iwould rather deal with them clear sightedly without a striving for perfection and unrealisitc ethics that all the traditions have in spades.
    Tonight I looked up at the stars and I felt myself,groping for how to respond to their twinkling questions-not a self mediated through someone elses pre scientific stories, but my own small imperfect humanity and with that I was satisfied.

  12. tamingauthor says:

    Watched the video of Sam Harris. Sad performance. He has little or no understanding of religion, much less the subject of spirituality. He fails to realize how snarky he comes off. It would be easy to turn the tables and demonstrate how he operates on the "blind faith" of scientism. Maybe that is a video that should be produced.

  13. elephantjournal says:
    Is Atheism rational? Via

    Paul L Athists that are not against the idea of a god can be. Emotional athists, no.

    Peter L
    Didn't you hear? All the gods died about 2,500+ years ago when a few humans became rational objective realists. Einstein put the nail in their coffin with the Relativity and the No Faster than Light Travel… can't be all knowing if it take…s 10 Billion years for news to travel from half way across the known universe to Earth now can you? Nope… the laws of Nature prevent all gods from existing except as delusional fantasies in the minds of faith based believers. Time to update your world view, life is short, take the Red Pill and come back to the Objective Reality of Nature with all it's beauty and stark horrors including the stark horror that there are no gods. Oh wait, that's actually very beautiful for that means they can't judge us and impose their immoral values upon us. It also means that your choices in life are even more important! Choose carefully and wisely.

    Natasha D ‎"God is dead…but we killed him."

    Vanessa H true atheism =IS= a religion … it is a unprovable belief about god/creator/spirit … agnostics i can understand, but those fervently convinced there is no god or afterlife are just as irrational as those convinced they have god all figured out, that they're right, and everyone else is wrong … both are irrational unprovable surety in something that neither can prove.

    Kathleen S I think one should be open to possibilities.

    Cheryl T God is dead if you have no soul….that is where HE lives. All views can co-exist because they do…religion is exclusive…spirituality is inclusive.

    Carol K God is an imaginary creation of a frightened human, we have soul it is just that we are a powerful being and far to willing to give that power and responsibility to a patriarchal figure who we hope will save us…we are taught in judeo-christian-muslim to live in fear from the time we are little, instead of living as noble creatures in our own right…

  14. dan says:

    I’ve gone through that phase too. I found it clarifying but depressing, discovering that most of the argument is for the thrill of the argument, and engages people too fully to go anywhere, “atheist” and “theist” being such vague yet charged terms.
    I do not think it is any particular belief, but the actions one takes in the world that matter. We can honestly say/think, “X is”, yet it is our motivating principles that drive our actions, not belief (stealing and killing, both almost universally believed wrong, but it is a rare person who, given certain circumstances, wouldn’t (doesn’t) do either or both). When looking at the ills of the world (well, the ills humans inflict upon themselves), it is not God but Greed that causes the most suffering. Lack of empathy alone does not make you a sociopath- you have to pursue your own goals while lacking empathy, and harm people in the process.
    When ‘religion’ is blamed for suffering, what is really being talked about is not religion, but active fundamentalism (where, “I am right, you are wrong, and anyone who is insists on being wrong can and should be deleted”). Religion is an easy foil because, like happiness, wonderment, fear and caring, any and every big feeling has and will be put under religion’s mailable umbrella.
    This plasticity is probably the most difficult part of talking about faith and belief, and clear definitions and caveats should be laid out at the beginning of any discussion, and they rarely are. Even the term ‘atheist’ is incredibly vague- strong, weak, humanist, communist etc., what a person actually means, let alone their motivating principles, are completely unknown, and of course the same goes for ‘theist’!
    Perhaps I’ve let on that I’m bothered by some of the modern, vocal (internet) atheists. The more I read of them, the more my heart hardens to them, which distresses me, as more often than not we share humanist values. (Though Harris had a long and twisting justification for waterboarding and torture in general, and Hitchens was an ardent promoter of the Iraq invasion, etc, and of course the habitual cry against “deluded morons who cannot think” isn’t particularly useful either). Typical rhetoric is rife with straw-men, insults, rapid diversion and “science” as panacea, regularly avoiding difficult and complicated histories in favor of their agenda, even using manufactured histories, like how religion came about, and what cave people most certainly did (which is done well in , which suggests that unseen agency developed as a consequence of self-preservation; I find these articles hilarious, arguing for the naturalness of religions/spirituality, and that now we can discard this or that instinct).
    In the video you’ve posted, Harris begins blaming 9/11 entirely on faith, not as an act of aggression against a (perceived) imperial power, an invader- he and “new” atheism generally don’t want to talk about economics in the context of religion, because BP, Monsanto, Greenspan, the World Bank, and the Chinese Communist Party ruin their narrative (peace and joy via science and/or moral freedom). Greed, lust, other “classic” sins, why they are “sins” in the first place, are also avoided, running contra to their community’s values. If Harris and other “new” atheists had any actual interest in getting people to think on their own, they’d set aside the incredibly emotional god stuff and push for elementary logic to be taught in elementary school or hold logic teach-ins, not masquerade fundamentalist ignorant on-high speeches as thoughtful dialog about the advancement of humanity.
    Pulling back from the rant (apologies… in short: despite the hype, atheists are stupid too), what we believe is faint next to what we do; whether I believe it is sky-faeries or chaos butterflies that it is raining, I nevertheless forget my umbrella- neither have kept me dry. I am very aware of the absurdities of some of my beliefs of “the miraculous”, but nevertheless I do believe them, and have made efforts to shake them but to no avail. In fact, these efforts distress distract and depress me. Miracles, or my “indoctrination” predisposing me to them are not why I believe saints to be divine- it is the clarity, beauty and logic of their imperatives, testable cause-effects of acting and being conscious in certain ways. I’d say Newton was divinely inspired, being the exception not the norm, and with as much accuracy as Harris claiming he wasn’t. The promise of seeing the world as it really is is something I find inspiring, and a reason to continue existing even while suffering. Capital “R” Reality is the promise of mysticism, and the hope of science. Both require dedication, study and decades of fruitless activity; neither usually work; neither are guarantees.

    Were there evidence that setting aside or otherwise dismissing belief in God to whatever degree would actually make any person better, smarter, kinder, happier, more calm, or prosperous, more than religion, I’d have enthusiasm for it. Taking a look at our world, I see religious values consistently set aside in favor of the short-term practical, and masturbatory utopias spun from every angle.

  15. BenRiggs says:

    Here is an interesting point of view on this subject…
    I went Christmas shopping with my girlfriend tonight. She found this poetry book she wanted. There was poem in it that hit the nail on the head. Well, sort of! So I ran home and threw a blog together including the poem. Check it out:

  16. BenRiggs says:

    Has anyone seen Ben Stein documentary "Expelled?" Here is a link to the super trailer on Youtube… It is a great documentary!

  17. […] I don’t know (as in, I cannot say with absolute and undeniable certainty) if there is a God or a Higher Power. […]

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