A few days ago I got an email from a thoughtful and well-spoken Christian, Steve, who had come across the Church of the Churchless. He disagreed with what I said in my “Brother of Jesus ossuary hoax” posting: “Christianity, if it is true, should be independent of Jesus Christ.” I enjoyed reading Steve’s thoughts, and hope he won’t mind my sharing them. Download Message from a Christian.doc (28.0K)
Steve, I admire your commitment to Christianity. I also like the attitude reflected in your comment, “I say this not in an effort to convert you….” Amen to that, and I hope you take this response of mine in the same spirit, for I’m not out to convert you to my unfaith either. I simply enjoy our interplay of ideas. Your email message stimulated some reflections of my own that encompass the theme of this post, “Why I’m not a Christian,” but also go beyond them.
For not only am I not a Christian, increasingly I find myself not anything else either. I don’t know what I am. For thirty-five years I’ve called myself a “satsangi,” a generic Indian term that means a member of a sangat, or congregation if you like. Interestingly, the spiritual organization that I’ve been a part of—Radha Soami Satsang Beas, or RSSB—in some ways is more Christian than any denomination that believes in the divinity of Jesus.
Why do I say this? Because the centerpiece of RSSB, along with related groups that fall under the rubric of “Sant Mat” (path of the saints), is a living master who is considered to be, like Christ, a Son of God. The master, or guru, is regarded as God in living form (or GILF, as some discussion groups abbreviate him). Many Sant Mat disciples come from a Christian background. Frequently they find that their relationship with the master and his teachings offers them everything that Christianity did, and then some.
I used to have no doubts about Radha Soami Satsang Beas or my own master, Charan Singh. Now I do. I consider this to be spiritual progress, not backsliding. I used to accept many things on faith that now I put in a “maybe, but remains to be proven” category. This is a big category in my mind. I’ve got countless concepts about God and spirituality filed away from a lifetime of reading, meditating, and general life-experiencing.
What I am sure of would fit on a few post-it notes; what remains a hypothesis fills shelf upon shelf in the library of my mind.
Once I realized this, I could no longer say with my previous ease, “I’m a ________.” That blank has had numerous entries during my fifty-six years: Catholic, hippie pothead, existentialist humanist, satsangi, and now---nothing. Well, “nothing” in the sense of a tidy moniker that I can assign to the form of my spiritual aspirations.
If I had to give a one-word answer to the question, “What do you believe in?” it would be “reality.” This certainly isn’t nothing, but since it is nothing in particular and everything in all I feel that Churchlessness is the straightest path to ultimate truth.
Steve, you said that “Truth—with a capital ‘T’—is outside its [science’s] realm and science is not qualified to posit nor hypothesize in the spiritual or philosophical realm.” Well, then, what is Truth inside if it is outside of science? In other words, where does Truth with a capital ‘T’ reside?
This is the big question. Really, it is the only question. All other queries can be reduced to this Mother of All Questions. My Christian correspondent said that “Scripture is meant to reveal specifics of God; his nature, desires, guidelines and plans.” So does Truth reside in a book? I can’t believe this. How did it come to be in a book? That place, the source, is what I want to find.
Steve’s message ended with: “I don’t see Christianity being on shaky ground at all. However, if you remove Christ from Christianity, you no longer have Christianity.” Yes, we agree on at least the last sentence. However, I consider that a faith which stands or falls on the nature of a single person, dead or alive, is on shaky ground. Others who number in the billions, disagree. And that’s fine by me.
I just cannot accept that the keys to the mysteries of the cosmos are held by a particular man or woman, and no one can pass through the doorway of Truth without following in that person’s footsteps. Could Truth play favorites in this fashion? Can only a chosen few become citizens of Ultimate Reality, with the rest of us destined to remain aliens in this strange material world?
Science seeks the universal, not the particular, for the rock bottom of reality seemingly must be something (energy? consciousness? spirit?) capable of supporting everything. Thus the way of science in knowing physical existence also is the way of knowing spiritual existence. Such is my hypothesis, at least, and it rests comfortably with me.
Along these lines, the New York Times web site had an interesting article today called “God (or Not), Physics and, of Course, Love: Scientists Take a Leap.” The question “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” was posed to scientists, futurists, and other creative thinkers. Their answers are fascinating. I’ll include the entire article in a post continuation. Here’s how one person, David Meyers, answered the question in a fashion that I wholeheartedly agree with:
As a Christian monotheist, I start with two unproven axioms: 1. There is a God. 2. It's not me (and it's also not you). Together, these axioms imply my surest conviction: that some of my beliefs (and yours) contain error. We are, from dust to dust, finite and fallible. We have dignity but not deity.
And that is why I further believe that we should a) hold all our unproven beliefs with a certain tentativeness (except for this one!), b) assess others' ideas with open-minded skepticism, and c) freely pursue truth aided by observation and experiment.
This mix of faith-based humility and skepticism helped fuel the beginnings of modern science, and it has informed my own research and science writing. The whole truth cannot be found merely by searching our own minds, for there is not enough there. So we also put our ideas to the test. If they survive, so much the better for them; if not, so much the worse.
God (or Not), Physics and, of Course, Love: Scientists Take a Leap
January 4, 2005
"What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove
it?"This was the question posed to scientists, futurists
and other creative thinkers by John Brockman, a literary
agent and publisher of The Edge, a Web site devoted to
science. The site asks a new question at the end of each
year. Here are excerpts from the responses, to be posted
Tuesday at www.edge.org.
Psychologist and computer scientist; author, "Designing
I do not believe that people are capable of rational
thought when it comes to making decisions in their own
lives. People believe they are behaving rationally and have
thought things out, of course, but when major decisions are
made - who to marry, where to live, what career to pursue,
what college to attend, people's minds simply cannot cope
with the complexity. When they try to rationally analyze
potential options, their unconscious, emotional thoughts
take over and make the choice for them.
Evolutionary biologist, Oxford University; author, "The
I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all
intelligence, all creativity and all "design" anywhere in
the universe, is the direct or indirect product of
Darwinian natural selection. It follows that design comes
late in the universe, after a period of Darwinian
evolution. Design cannot precede evolution and therefore
cannot underlie the universe.
Judith Rich Harris
Writer and developmental psychologist; author, "The Nurture
I believe, though I cannot prove it, that three - not two -
selection processes were involved in human evolution.
The first two are familiar: natural selection, which
selects for fitness, and sexual selection, which selects
The third process selects for beauty, but not sexual beauty
- not adult beauty. The ones doing the selecting weren't
potential mates: they were parents. Parental selection, I
Physicist; retired director, American Institute of Physics;
author, "The Quantum World"
I believe that microbial life exists elsewhere in our
I am not even saying "elsewhere in the universe." If the
proposition I believe to be true is to be proved true
within a generation or two, I had better limit it to our
own galaxy. I will bet on its truth there.
I believe in the existence of life elsewhere because
chemistry seems to be so life-striving and because life,
once created, propagates itself in every possible
direction. Earth's history suggests that chemicals get busy
and create life given any old mix of substances that
includes a bit of water, and given practically any old
source of energy; further, that life, once created, spreads
into every nook and cranny over a wide range of
temperature, acidity, pressure, light level and so on.
Believing in the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in
the galaxy is another matter.
Neuroscientist, New York University; author, "The Synaptic
For me, this is an easy question. I believe that animals
have feelings and other states of consciousness, but
neither I nor anyone else has been able to prove it. We
can't even prove that other people are conscious, much less
other animals. In the case of other people, though, we at
least can have a little confidence since all people have
brains with the same basic configurations. But as soon as
we turn to other species and start asking questions about
feelings and consciousness in general we are in risky
territory because the hardware is different.
Because I have reason to think that their feelings might be
different than ours, I prefer to study emotional behavior
in rats rather than emotional feelings.
There's lots to learn about emotion through rats that can
help people with emotional disorders. And there's lots we
can learn about feelings from studying humans, especially
now that we have powerful function imaging techniques. I'm
not a radical behaviorist. I'm just a practical
Biologist, University of Massachusetts; author, "Symbiosis
in Cell Evolution"
I feel that I know something that will turn out to be
correct and eventually proved to be true beyond doubt.
That our ability to perceive signals in the
environment evolved directly from our bacterial ancestors.
That is, we, like all other mammals including our apish
brothers detect odors, distinguish tastes, hear bird song
and drumbeats and we too feel the vibrations of the drums.
With our eyes closed we detect the light of the rising sun.
These abilities to sense our surroundings are a heritage
that preceded the evolution of all primates, all vertebrate
animals, indeed all animals.
Psychologist, Hope College; author, "Intuition"
As a Christian monotheist, I start with two unproven axioms:
1. There is a God.
2. It's not me (and it's also not
Together, these axioms imply my surest conviction: that
some of my beliefs (and yours) contain error. We are, from
dust to dust, finite and fallible. We have dignity but not
And that is why I further believe that we should
a) hold all our unproven beliefs with a certain
tentativeness (except for this one!),
b) assess others' ideas with open-minded skepticism, and
c) freely pursue truth aided by observation and experiment.
This mix of faith-based humility and skepticism helped fuel
the beginnings of modern science, and it has informed my
own research and science writing. The whole truth cannot be
found merely by searching our own minds, for there is not
enough there. So we also put our ideas to the test. If they
survive, so much the better for them; if not, so much the
Neuroscientist, Stanford University, author, "A Primate's
Mine would be a fairly simple, straightforward case of an
unjustifiable belief, namely that there is no god(s) or
such a thing as a soul (whatever the religiously inclined
of the right persuasion mean by that word). ...
I'm taken with religious folks who argue that you not only
can, but should believe without requiring proof. Mine is to
not believe without requiring proof. Mind you, it would be
perfectly fine with me if there were a proof that there is
no god. Some might view this as a potential public health
problem, given the number of people who would then run
damagingly amok. But it's obvious that there's no shortage
of folks running amok thanks to their belief. So that
wouldn't be a problem and, all things considered, such a
proof would be a relief - many physicists, especially
astrophysicists, seem weirdly willing to go on about their
communing with god about the Big Bang, but in my world of
biologists, the god concept gets mighty infuriating when
you spend your time thinking about, say, untreatably
aggressive childhood leukemia.
Cognitive scientist, University of California, Irvine;
author, "Visual Intelligence"
I believe that consciousness and its contents are all that
exists. Space-time, matter and fields never were the
fundamental denizens of the universe but have always been,
from their beginning, among the humbler contents of
consciousness, dependent on it for their very being.
The world of our daily experience - the world of tables,
chairs, stars and people, with their attendant shapes,
smells, feels and sounds - is a species-specific user
interface to a realm far more complex, a realm whose
essential character is conscious. It is unlikely that the
contents of our interface in any way resemble that realm.
Indeed the usefulness of an interface requires, in general,
that they do not. For the point of an interface, such as
the Windows interface on a computer, is simplification and
ease of use. We click icons because this is quicker and
less prone to error than editing megabytes of software or
toggling voltages in circuits.
Evolutionary pressures dictate that our species-specific
interface, this world of our daily experience, should
itself be a radical simplification, selected not for the
exhaustive depiction of truth but for the mutable
pragmatics of survival.
If this is right, if consciousness is fundamental, then we
should not be surprised that, despite centuries of effort
by the most brilliant of minds, there is as yet no
physicalist theory of consciousness, no theory that
explains how mindless matter or energy or fields could be,
or cause, conscious experience.
Psychologist, London School of Economics; author,"The Mind
I believe that human consciousness is a conjuring trick,
designed to fool us into thinking we are in the presence of
an inexplicable mystery. Who is the conjuror and why is
s/he doing it? The conjuror is natural selection, and the
purpose has been to bolster human self-confidence and
self-importance - so as to increase the value we each place
on our own and others' lives.
Psychologist, emeritus professor, Stanford; author,
I believe that the prison guards at the Abu Ghraib Prison
in Iraq, who worked the night shift in Tier 1A, where
prisoners were physically and psychologically abused, had
surrendered their free will and personal responsibility
during these episodes of mayhem.
But I could not prove it in a court of law. These eight
Army reservists were trapped in a unique situation in which
the behavioral context came to dominate individual
dispositions, values and morality to such an extent that
they were transformed into mindless actors alienated from
their normal sense of personal accountability for their
actions - at that time and place.
The "group mind" that developed among these soldiers was
created by a set of known social psychological conditions,
some of which are nicely featured in Golding's "Lord of the
Flies." The same processes that I witnessed in my Stanford
Prison Experiment were clearly operating in that remote
place: deindividuation, dehumanization, boredom,
groupthink, role-playing, rule control and more.
Philip W. Anderson
Physicist and Nobel laureate, Princeton
Is string theory a futile exercise as physics, as I believe
it to be? It is an interesting mathematical specialty and
has produced and will produce mathematics useful in other
contexts, but it seems no more vital as mathematics than
other areas of very abstract or specialized math, and
doesn't on that basis justify the incredible amount of
effort expended on it.
My belief is based on the fact that string theory is the
first science in hundreds of years to be pursued in
pre-Baconian fashion, without any adequate experimental
guidance. It proposes that Nature is the way we would like
it to be rather than the way we see it to be; and it is
improbable that Nature thinks the same way we do.
The sad thing is that, as several young would-be theorists
have explained to me, it is so highly developed that it is
a full-time job just to keep up with it. That means that
other avenues are not being explored by the bright,
imaginative young people, and that alternative career paths
Psychologist, University of California, Berkeley;
co-author, "The Scientist in the Crib"
I believe, but cannot prove, that babies and young children
are actually more conscious, more vividly aware of their
external world and internal life, than adults are. I
believe this because there is strong evidence for a
functional trade-off with development. Young children are
much better than adults at learning new things and flexibly
changing what they think about the world. On the other
hand, they are much worse at using their knowledge to act
in a swift, efficient and automatic way. They can learn
three languages at once but they can't tie their shoelaces.
Psychologist, University of Texas; author, "The Evolution
I've spent two decades of my professional life studying
human mating. In that time, I've documented phenomena
ranging from what men and women desire in a mate to the
most diabolical forms of sexual treachery. I've discovered
the astonishingly creative ways in which men and women
deceive and manipulate each other. I've studied mate
poachers, obsessed stalkers, sexual predators and spouse
murderers. But throughout this exploration of the dark
dimensions of human mating, I've remained unwavering in my
belief in true love.
While love is common, true love is rare, and I believe that
few people are fortunate enough to experience it. The roads
of regular love are well traveled and their markers are
well understood by many - the mesmerizing attraction, the
ideational obsession, the sexual afterglow, profound
self-sacrifice and the desire to combine DNA. But true love
takes its own course through uncharted territory. It knows
no fences, has no barriers or boundaries. It's difficult to
define, eludes modern measurement and seems scientifically
woolly. But I know true love exists. I just can't prove it.