God Is Unconvincing To Smart Folks? – Part 1

The title of this article, minus the question mark, is the title of an article posted recently (December 1, 2016) on the Huffington Post Blog. Its author is J. H. McKenna, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer on the History of Religious Ideas at the University of California, Irvine. Here is the article’s introductory line:

As far as I can discover from interviews and from books, there are at least 21 reasons smart people find God unconvincing. Here are the 21 reasons, explained.

This multi-part article here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life is my response to Dr. McKenna’s 21 collected reasons, from the perspective of a perhaps moderately smart theist of the Swedenborgian Christian variety.

The “About” page at Dr. McKenna’s website, “Upon Religion,” ends with these words:

Dr. McKenna often views religious ideas through the lens of benign humor.

Fascinating! As it turns out, I often view atheist ideas through the lens of benign humor! I’m sure Dr. McKenna won’t mind.

Speaking of which, before getting to my point-by-point response to Dr. McKenna’s article let’s take a look at that title.

Argumentum ad idiotam

Way back in the dark ages (meaning the early 1990s, before the Internet broke out of academia and became mainstream), when I was even more foolish than I am today, I haplessly wandered into a Fidonet computer network “Echo” (public discussion forum) called “Holysmoke.” Put simply, Holysmoke was the Echo where moderators of other Fidonet Echoes sent overly zealous Christian proselytizers to get eaten alive by a pack of atheist piranhas. (And no, I hadn’t been proselytizing. The name of the Echo just sounded interesting!)

In one of my earlier messages there (which, alas, is apparently among the “missing links” in the online Holysmoke archives), I rather foolishly started one of my arguments with the words, “If you are smart, . . . .”

As you might imagine, the aforementioned pack of atheist piranhas swarmed all over that one!

They accused me of engaging in the logical fallacy of argumentum ad idiotam. (Okay, okay, that may not be the exact name of the logical fallacy.) To say that only smart people believed a certain thing, they assured me, was a completely baseless, illogical, and in fact completely idiotic and downright ******* stupid argument to make, and I was a complete moron to say such a ridiculous and insulting thing!

Imagine my surprise, then, over twenty years later, to find Dr. McKenna’s atheist apologia headlined: “God Is Unconvincing To Smart Folks”!

Now, Dr. McKenna does seem to be a much nicer person than were the denizens of that old HolySmoke Fidonet Echo. Yet he’s tangled in the same old argument about who knows better: Smart Folks or Stupid Folks. And of course, the people who agree with me (whoever I happen to be) are the Smart Folks!

And no, I won’t let Dr. McKenna hide behind “scholarly objectivity” and claim that he’s just reporting what other people think. As the old newspaper maxim goes, “You can say whatever you want. Just put it between quotes.”

Educated elites don’t get to decide what’s true

It doesn’t help that a 2013 academic study titled “The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations,” by Miron Zuckerman, Jordan Silberman, and Judith A. Hall, generally supported the idea that higher levels of intelligence are associated with lower levels of religiosity. But as pointed out in a Washington Post article responding to the study, “Are atheists smarter than believers? Not exactly,” it’s best not to jump to hasty conclusions.

The debate about that study is extensive. But here’s the bottom line for our purposes today: Whether something is true or not isn’t dependent upon how many smart people believe it is true. Truth is not a majority-rules process, still less a process in which the educated elites get to decide among themselves what the rest of us must believe if we’re smart. Throughout history there have been many Very Smart Folks who have believed some Very Stupid Things.

The opening abstract of the aforementioned study ends with this sentence:

Intelligent people may therefore have less need for religious beliefs and practices.

Now that is a very insightful observation!

In addition to the reasons given in the study itself, I would add this one: Highly educated and intelligent people are commonly found in academia and in the upper echelons of society. There, they can feel a sense of economic and personal security that is not enjoyed by the mass of ordinary working people who do not have their high level of education and privilege.

It’s easy not to feel any need for God when you’re in a tenured position in academia, or in a highly paid upper-level position in a booming tech or biomedical company.

But for the people down in the trenches, life is fragile and uncertain. One serious mistake, one accident, one injury could cost them their job and their livelihood—and they know it. These people live one missed paycheck or one bad break away from being chucked out onto the street. For these folks, the need for a higher power to provide a deeper sense of security is very real.

Beyond that, whether intelligent people have less need for religious beliefs and practices is irrelevant to the existence or non-existence of God. Our need for God, or lack thereof, does not determine whether or not God exists. The truth, whatever it may be, is independent of our particular perspective or position in society.

Now that we’ve dealt with Dr. McKenna’s title, let’s dig into his twenty-one points.

1. God as an old white man in the sky is unconvincing

Under this heading, Dr. McKenna writes:

Depictions of God as a humanoid (this is called ‘anthropo-morphism’ = in human form) have been considered incredible since ancient times. Rendering God as a male humanoid is not credible to skeptics. Does this male God have genitals, a deep voice, facial hair? Also, it’s curious that God usually resembles whoever it is that’s depicting God—and that’s men! Men made God in their own image and likeness.

For Jews and Christians, the idea that God is in some sense human is based especially on this passage in the very first chapter of the Hebrew Bible:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. . . .

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26–27)

In his Notebooks, the deist philosopher Voltaire (1694–1778) famously wrote:

If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor.

Jesus depicted as being of various races

Jesus depicted as being of various races (image courtesy of en.wikipedia.org)

The historical and social reality that God is pictured by various believers as being their own type of human being doesn’t mean that God actually looks like an old bearded white man (in the case of common European depictions of God). Given that there are many different races, types, and sizes of humans in the world, all of them created “in the image and likeness of God,” it is sensible to believe that God encompasses the various qualities of, and is the origin of, all of those different types of human beings, rather than looking exclusively like any one of them.

And yes, this would mean God is the origin of European male humans’ genitals, deep voices, and facial hair, not to mention being the origin of European female humans’ genitals, higher voices, and non-bearded faces—and of the sex-linked traits of people of every other race. Does Dr. McKenna have a problem with God being the origin of human sexuality? Is Dr. McKenna just as uncomfortable with sex as are the Christian conservatives whose religious ideas he views with benign humor?

If God made humanity in God’s own image, then God must encompass all human qualities, of all different types of humans. However, as Voltaire said, since God created us in God’s image, it is only natural that we humans will return the favor, and picture God in our own particular image—whatever that image might be.

As for the more general issue of an anthropomorphic God, we’ll save that for Dr. McKenna’s second point:

2. God as immaterial and yet with biological functions is unconvincing

It’s self-contradictory to say God is ‘immaterial’ and in the same breath say God sees, hears, speaks, and feels—all of which are functions of biological, material organisms. What does God ‘see’ with if not a material eye? ‘Hear’ with if not a material ear? ‘Speak’ with without a material mouth? These descriptions of God are self-contradictory and nonsensical.

These things are self-contradictory and nonsensical only if our conception of reality is limited to physical, material reality.

According to Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772)—and Swedenborg is far from unique in thinking this way—there are three distinct general levels of reality, in descending order:

  1. Divine reality, meaning God
  2. Spiritual reality, encompassing the spiritual world and the human psyche
  3. Material reality, or the physical universe and everything in it, including the human body

Where Swedenborg departs from many thinkers is in saying that each of these levels of reality is substantial and organic, in the sense of being made of real substance and also having a living, functioning, and complex form without which it could not be real.

According to Swedenborg, the spiritual world, though completely non-physical, is every bit as real, solid, and complex as is the physical world. In particular, he says that we have a spiritual body (compare 1 Corinthians 15:44) that has every part, every organ, and every detail that our physical body does—so much so that after we leave our physical body behind and enter the spiritual world, we will hardly be able to tell the difference. (And yes, Dr. McKenna, this does include what’s between our legs.) And yet that body is not made of physical matter, but of spiritual substance.

And God, Swedenborg says, exists on a still higher level of reality: the divine level of reality. At that level (which is infinite, and therefore beyond our ability to fully grasp), God also has real substance and real “organic” form. In fact, God has an infinitely complex form, which encompasses, and is the source of, all of the forms and functions that we enjoy as human beings, including sight, hearing, speaking, and feeling.

In short, God does not see with material eyes, but with divine eyes. God does not hear with material ears, but with divine ears. God does not speak with a material mouth, but with a divine mouth. And so on with the other senses and abilities. And unlike our limited physical senses here on earth, and even our not quite as limited spiritual senses when we move on to the spiritual world, God’s divine senses, being infinite and above all the other levels of reality, are capable of sensing everything in the created universe.

Further, God is human not so much because God is physically shaped like a human being, but because God has all the essential qualities of human beings, including love, wisdom, intelligence, passion, perception, humor, and all of the other qualities that make us human rather than simply being a higher order of animal.

We’ll say more about how God senses everything in the created universe in Part 2 when we take up Dr. McKenna’s third point: “God as all-knowing is unconvincing.”

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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28 comments on “God Is Unconvincing To Smart Folks? – Part 1
  1. Hoyle says:

    I’ve followed your articles for 6 months or so. With all due respect, it appears that you work too hard explaining “Spirituality”. I would suggest your insights would be better understood by the reader if you lessen the intertwining of religion and spirituality. Fewer answers and more exploratory type of discussion would be very refreshing and I believe well received. Regardless of my opinions, it looks like you’re well on your spiritual journey as you understand it. God speed and Merry Christmas!!

    • Lee says:

      Hi Hoyle,

      Thanks for the feedback. It’s good to have you with us. Can you be a little more specific on what type of articles you would like to see more of here?

      Annette and I wish you a wonderful Christmas season!

  2. Alex says:

    Ugh. That old argument that smart people do not need God, because they have science. Hogwash. Universal truth lies with God and even the smartest person alive can be more oblivious to spiritual matters than the average person.

    I would count to said ‘educated folks’ and I can tell you one thing. It has little to do with my perception of spiritual values and gaining spiritual understanding. I only get said understanding when God wills it.

    I can see where it comes from though. I tend to question things a whole lot because I dislike blind belief. So I question, I doubt, I learn. If anything, my intelligence is a responsibility. God graced me with it and now it is my task to use for the benefit of others, not to cast out God and act as if I know all.

    Anyway, good read. Thanks 😉

  3. tenderelftown says:

    For me, a universal source conscious awareness at the fundament of our reality seems pretty obvious. What I don’t get is how so many “smart folks” insist that ALL of the bizarre old stories contained within these ancient religious texts must come from God, particularly when they often paint God in such a dismal, all-too-human light. I seriously don’t understand the mindset that says “all of our holy book (whichever one that might be) must be true or none of it is true.” From my perspective, that’s the part that’s not “smart.”

    I understand that it’s the human need for certainty within this big, scary reality – with death always looming large – that causes this need in people to believe that every word of their holy books must be true, must come from God. But I still don’t understand how the rational mind in these folks does not naturally overcome their existential fear and its resulting need to believe ALL – in the face of some pretty outlandish, heinous things being attributed to God.

    So this need by many to believe in their holy books ENTIRELY quite naturally sets them up for the lifelong task of trying to justify all the craziness and inconsistencies, both to themselves and others. It seems far more likely to me (actually, pretty obvious) that many, many religious texts contain some deep truths that represent the reality of our source consciousness, but at the same time they are mixed with much that is not from god, i.e., ancient tribal folklore. When we simply accept the fact that there has been “human adulteration” to “God’s word” in all legitimate religious texts – because that’s what humans do – it frees up ours mind so we can spend the majority our time growing, spiritually, and far less of it trying to make sense out of all the primitive weirdness. All the best!

    • Lee says:

      Hi tenderelftown,

      Good to hear from you again. I hope life is treating you well.

      I have come to think of the Bible, and of divine revelation in general, as a relationship between God and humanity. This means that it must have both a divine side and a human side. If it didn’t have a divine side, it wouldn’t be revelation. If it didn’t have a human side, we wouldn’t be able to understand it.

      Another way of saying this is that in the Bible God speaks to us in human language, not divine language. If God were to speak in pure divine language, it would be beyond our ability even to hear it, let alone to comprehend it. So God speaks to us in our own language. And since our language is based on our culture, this means speaking to us in terms of the particular cultures through which God delivers the message.

      In the case of the Bible, that means ancient Hebrew culture in the Old Testament, and later, in the New Testament, ancient Hebrew culture as influenced by ancient Greek and Roman culture. To understand the message, it is necessary to learn and understand what the various actors and events in the story meant in terms of the culture of the time. That culture and its people and stories serve as metaphors for deeper spiritual and divine realities.

      If we look only at the surface—the literal meaning—we will mostly see an ancient culture less developed scientifically, morally, and spiritually than our own. And those who are stuck at that level of meaning, both conservative Christians and atheists, will miss most of the Bible’s real message because they’re focusing on the material, human imagery rather than the metaphorical meaning that it is meant to express.

      As it turns out, Part 3 of this article, which will be posted in a few hours, deals briefly with this issue of atheists reading the Bible essentially the same way that fundamentalist Christians do, only rejecting it instead of accepting it. And I have previously referred you to the article, “How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads,” which goes into more detail.

      Unfortunately, there are still billions of people on this earth who think primarily in physical and materialistic terms. Some of them are religious and some of them are not. The religious ones read their sacred books literally, and believe that God is an angry, punishing being who calls them to wars of various kinds. The non-religious ones reject their sacred books altogether, and therefore miss any deeper spiritual content those books may have to offer to those whose eyes are open to see it.

      Part of our mission here at Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life is to help restore the awareness and knowledge of the deeper divine message within the human, cultural clothing of the Bible. We believe it is a message that the world, both sacred and secular, very much needs in this new era of humanity.

  4. tenderelftown says:

    Oh, I forgot to check the “notify” box. So I shall do it now. LOL.

    • tenderelftown says:

      “The religious ones read their sacred books literally, and believe that God is an angry, punishing being who calls them to wars of various kinds.”

      Yes, it’s easy to see why they would think this, considering all of the seemingly punitive slaughter attributed to God in the OT. But if taken as a metaphor, then what is the meaning/lesson/metaphor in the flood story, for example? The only thing I see in it is: “Obey me, or I’ll squash you like a bug.” I see this as a projection of our own limited abilities to love onto “God” via this and many other ancient stories, which often pop up in a variety of cultures, like the flood story.

      I see God as giving all of us only unconditional love, since we are a sacred part of him. As a result, we get all the time and help we need to “grow up,” spiritually, both in this life and beyond. In my view, God would no sooner “throw any of us away” than a preschool teacher would throw an unruly child in the the dumpster out back and forget about them forever because they misbehaved.

      Also, what role do you think other sacred texts, besides the Bible, play in God getting his intentions known to mankind? What are some of the things you see, specifically, in other sacred texts that you find to be inspirational and from God?

      If the ancient sacred holy books are culture-specific, as you say, in that they were written for other people at a certain time and place, then it makes sense to my why they are often rejected by modern people. So I have taken Christ’s lessons of love from the Bible and applied them to my life, but I reject most of the rest of it because it of it’s “primitive weirdness,” as I said before.

      Instead I choose to study things like the NDE evidence, as well as other areas, where currently living people experience the “larger reality” directly, and they relate their experiences to us in modern terms. I find this much more useful in trying to understand “God” than attempting to decipher ancient texts that – as you say – that were not meant for our culture. Also, I find my direct experience of “God” during meditation to be far more powerful than reading the confusing (to me) old stories. And I think modern people are experiencing God in some very deep way and sharing their information with us to help us understand this reality on a deeper level. I don’t think this communication just stopped a couple thousand years ago; it has been ongoing and will continue to be, which in a way is making the arcane, culture-specific texts far less useful. I’d say that ex-NASA physicist Tom Campbell has been the most help for me in this regard, but there are many others. All the best!

      • Hoyle says:

        I became an atheist of the God that was defined by religion. I’ve settled on the phrase “creating life force” to reconcile my existence. By definition of the word “INsight”, spiritual insights are derived from within. If I adopt the thinking of others to define my God, I lose all insight. One’s awareness of God and one’s knowledge of God are quite distinct. However, I do enjoy reading about the history of God and religion as I enjoyed your answer.

        • tenderelftown says:

          “By definition of the word “INsight”, spiritual insights are derived from within.”

          I agree. Others can point out various things to us, but we have to develop our own understanding for ourselves. As they say, “If it is not your experience, it is not your truth.” That’s how I look at Christianity and other ancient, prepackaged belief systems: Those beliefs are their beliefs, not mine – and from a long time ago. I feel compelled to develop my own understanding of this reality by studying the experiences of others, but most importantly, seeing how they fit in with my own internal experiences/insights. All the best!

        • Lee says:

          Hi tenderelftown,

          Of course, there are prepackaged versions of the various religions, including Christianity. And that’s what many people want: something they can believe and follow without having to think too hard about it. That’s why those religions are so popular. They serve a large group of people who want what they offer.

          However, the Bible itself is anything but prepackaged. Certainly it developed over many centuries, and was edited along the way. But for the most part it’s not a book of doctrine and theology. Rather, it’s a book of stories, experiences, parables, and prophecies. Those who are able to read it without too thick a lens of prepackaged dogma are often surprised and amazed at what they find there. It’s mostly not what is presented as doctrine by the various branches of mainstream Christianity.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Hoyle,

          Reminds me of what one of our old seminary professors back in the 1970s used to say to his counseling clients who declared themselves atheists and had issues about God based on their religious upbringing (as the professor recounted it to his students in class). He would ask them to describe this God they didn’t believe in. Usually it was some variation of the angry, capricious God who sends people to hell because they’re gay or Jewish. When they were finished, he would say, “That’s amazing! You don’t believe in the same God I don’t believe in!”

        • Hoyle says:

          Imagine how unreliable the recording of events was 2,000 years ago! With all of today’s technology, it’s still difficult to get people to agree on the same event they’ve just witnessed. It seems an incongruity that anyone could have developed a spiritual connection based upon the historical recordings that would later become “the word”, no matter what religion. I find it unnerving that Swedenborg, or anyone else, would claim mankind before revelation had “contact with the spiritual world” to know anything about their thoughts.. Written revelations are recordings of other people’s ideas of spirituality. Religion is necessary and healthy in many ways but not for the purpose of establishing one’s very own spirituality.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Hoyle,

          It is an error of our age to look at ancient sacred texts and reject them because their historical reliability is low. The purpose of those text is not and never was to provide an accurate accounting of events that took place historically. And though historians can glean some useful information from them through meta-study of the text, that simply isn’t and never was what they were written for.

          I have come to believe, in fact, that the lack of historicity of much of the writing of that time period is precisely the reason God could use the human authors of biblical times to write an inspired text, whereas with today’s valuation of historical and scientific accuracy it would have been more difficult for God to accomplish the aim of having text written in a story-based, quasi-historical style whose real purpose was not historical, but spiritual.

          To state all of this more briefly, the Bible simply isn’t a textbook of history or science, nor was it ever intended to be. It is an extended metaphor on the human spiritual condition and human spiritual history and development.

          From my perspective, then, written revelation is not merely a recording of other people’s ideas of spirituality—although it certainly does have that element to it. But far more than that, it is a cultural story that God has influenced and inspired so that it contains deeper spiritual and divine meaning that, for the most part, its own human writers were unaware of. (Though I do think that the original “authors”—probably oral storytellers—of the stories in the first ten or eleven chapters of Genesis were aware that their stories had deeper meanings, and that this was their intent in telling those stories.)

          Nor is religion the same as revelation. If by “religion” you mean the various religions that humans follow, these are human institutions that have grown up around revelations, seers, prophets, and so on. The can and often do go seriously off-track from what their own founding texts or prophets conveyed to them. So it’s not necessarily a good idea to evaluate their holy books and their seers based on those religions’ interpretations and applications of them. In particular, Christianity as an institution has, over the two millennia of its existence, departed very far from what’s in its holy book, the Bible, such that the fundamental dogmas of nearly every branch of Christianity today are simply never stated in the Bible. On this, see:

          Both Christians themselves and people looking in from the outside assume (for understandable reasons) that Christianity is based on the Bible. But the fact of the matter is that the key doctrines and dogmas of nearly every major and minor branch of Christianity today were formulated by human theologians hundreds or even a thousand or more years after the Bible was written. And though they all claim to be based on the Bible, if you read the Bible itself, you will simply not find those doctrines and dogmas stated there. And in many cases, you will find that the Bible actually firmly and plainly rejects those dogmas.

          Short version: Today’s “Christianity” is Christian in name only, and not in reality and essence. It is not the Christianity that the Bible teaches.

          However, the reality is that although there certainly are people such as you who are comfortable charting your own spiritual path, the bulk of humanity consists of followers, not leaders. And the bulk of humanity consists of people for whom God and spirit are not their primary interest, but still something they want in their life in one form or another. So the bulk of humanity is going to follow an existing spiritual path laid out for them by some religion rather than charting their own path. And if the available religions are offering a rather faulty and tortuous path, that’s the one they will travel, in all innocence.

      • Lee says:

        Hi tenderelftown,

        About the story of the Flood, soon after Darren Aronofsky’s film “Noah” came out (which I reviewed here), I wrote a major article looking into the spiritual meanings in the story and how it relates to our life today: “Noah’s Ark: A Sea Change in the Human Mind.” There’s a lot more to it than “Obey me, or I’ll squash you like a bug”!

      • Lee says:

        Hi tenderelftown,

        The rest of your questions are also big ones—and good ones. For starters, I would recommend your reading the “Boneheads” article I linked earlier, if you haven’t already.

        Of course, not every pathway to God goes through a sacred book. The very need for written revelation stems from the general abandonment of the spiritual in favor of the material early on in human culture and civilization. According to Swedenborg, there was a time early in the spiritual history of humanity when contact with the spiritual world was common, and written revelation was not necessary because people regularly had direct experience of God and the spiritual realms. Their spiritual senses were open so that this could happen. And as we know from NDEs and other accounts of people experiencing the spiritual realms today, that is still possible.

        However, the bulk of humanity remains focused more on the physical things of this material world than on the deeper realms of God and spirit. And in that rather unspiritual environment, written revelation is necessary as an external “physical” reminder and teacher about God and spirit.

        This also explains, I think, why much written revelation, including the Bible, looks rather primitive and even barbaric to our “enlightened” modern eyes. Even the Bhagavad Gita, which I read as a teenager, is set on a battlefield. Since written revelation must reach the ears, minds, and hearts of people who are anything but spiritual, it must draw on and deal with the most unspiritual and even evil states of humanity. Otherwise much of its intended audience would totally ignore it as ethereal and impractical.

        And yet, that very concreteness and pragmatic, often ugly human reality presented in the Bible also makes it an excellent extended metaphor for the human spiritual condition. Even people who don’t fight literal wars with guns and bombs find themselves wracked by internal wars and battles over moral, spiritual, ethical, and relational issues in their lives. The battlefield pictured in the Bhagavad Gita, and the battlefields of the Bible, are metaphors for those deeper battles we fight between the higher and lower, or light and dark, parts of our own psyche—and within human society generally.

        If we read our ancient sacred books in this deeper way, as a metaphor for the human condition, the stories in them that look crude, barbaric, and violent on the surface begin to evoke deeper understandings of our inner states and spiritual processes.

  5. tenderelftown says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. You are a rare Christian to be able to make this statement: “Of course, not every pathway to God goes through a sacred book.” I applaud you for that.

    I read a good chunk of your, “Noah’s Ark: A Sea Change in the Human Mind,” and it reinforces the main reason why I have given up trying to make sense out of ancient religious texts – because you really can interpret these old stories in almost any way you want to – which accounts for all of the disagreement within the various religions about what is meant by the various passages.

    I’ve always had a spiritual drive, but none of the traditional paths I’ve tried made enough sense for me continue down one path specific path. I feel lucky to have stumbled upon this sort of unusual character, Tom Campbell. His work has been the thing that has really clicked with me on a spiritual level. Believe it or not, it was his explanation and interpretation of the “famed” double slit experiment that really got my attention. And it has become clear to me, over time, that “God” (or what he calls The Larger Consciousness System) works in a variety of ways to help us grow, spiritually. In Tom’s case, he is able to appeal to us “left-brainers” because he has been able to demonstrate, “scientifically,” that there is likely far more to this world than our immediate material reality.

    I notice you have done the same thing with the Noah story that I have done with the Bible as a whole. You have taken what you find useful in it and discarded the rest, the “nastiness,” or the mass slaughter of humanity. But when I read, “If we want to do something destructive, such as killing someone we are angry with, we can tell ourselves that this is not a good idea—that we should take a chill pill until our anger wears off,” I can’t help but notice that God did, in the story, exactly what you warn against: killing people who we are angry with.

    Anyway, thanks again for you thoughtful words. All the best!

    • Lee says:

      Hi tenderelftown,

      Thanks for your further thoughts.

      The Christianity that I grew up in, and continue to follow, is a whole different animal from the various widely known institutions that go by the name “Christian.” As I said to Hoyle in my previous comment above, I view those “Christian” churches as Christian in name only, and not in reality and essence, because they have departed very far from what their own holy book, the Bible, actually teaches.

      I am aware that the Bible, like many other sacred books, can be interpreted in various ways. But when none of the key, fundamental doctrines of a church or religion is actually stated in the sacred book it claims to revere and base its beliefs on, that is a serious problem. And that is the case for the main branches of Christianity today. On this, see the articles I linked for Hoyle in this comment above.

      I am also aware that the type of Bible interpretation I engage in is likely to seem arbitrary to people who are first encountering it and are not familiar with the principles behind it.

      However, although I don’t attempt to outline the system behind it in most of my articles (that’s not their purpose), it actually is based on a coherent system of Bible interpretation that links in with a concept of the nature of reality, encompassing divine, spiritual, and material reality. It is based on what you might call a “Theory of Everything”—but Emanuel Swedenborg’s Theory of Everything rather than Tom Campbell’s. And although it does allow for personal interpretations, it doesn’t allow for interpreting any story to mean just any old thing we want it to mean. It is a principled and structured way of interpreting the Scriptures, and yet its application is always to human spiritual life as we experience it, and to the nature of God.

      Having said all that, I do not believe anyone has to follow my particular version of Christianity or spirituality in order to be on a path toward God and, in traditional Christian language, to be “saved.”

      In one of his many radical departures from the existing Christian institutions, Swedenborg stated clearly and repeatedly (and this was in the 18th century!) that people of all religions are saved if they believe in God as their religion teaches them to believe, and live a good life of love and kindness toward their neighbor as their religion teaches them to live. He categorically rejected the belief, which was universal in the Christianity of his day, that all non-Christians will be damned to hell. In fact, in what I find to be a delicious irony, he called this “Christian” doctrine—which was and still is considered by many Christians to be fundamental to Christian belief—“an insane heresy”:

      It is an insane heresy to believe that only those born in the [Christian] church are saved. People born outside the church are just as human as people born within it. They come from the same heavenly source. They are equally living and immortal souls. They have religions as well, religions that enable them to believe that God exists and that they should lead good lives; and all of them who do believe in God and lead good lives become spiritual on their own level and are saved, as already noted. (Divine Providence #330:5)

      I therefore do not feel that I must “convert” or convince anyone who has a spiritual path that they find helpful and enlightening for their own spiritual journey. There are many paths to God. And although I happen to like mine very much, I recognize that it is not for everyone. God reaches out to people and draws people toward God and spirit in many different ways, and through many different paths. What Annette and I present here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life is offered for people who are seeking new spiritual insight and understanding, and who may find what we have to offer helpful on their spiritual journey.

    • Lee says:

      Hi tenderelftown,

      You said:

      I notice you have done the same thing with the Noah story that I have done with the Bible as a whole. You have taken what you find useful in it and discarded the rest, the “nastiness,” or the mass slaughter of humanity. But when I read, “If we want to do something destructive, such as killing someone we are angry with, we can tell ourselves that this is not a good idea—that we should take a chill pill until our anger wears off,” I can’t help but notice that God did, in the story, exactly what you warn against: killing people who we are angry with.

      I see this whole issue a little differently.

      It’s not so much that I “discard” the nastiness contained in the Bible as that I see and interpret it in the context of the cultures in which it was written, and for the purposes for which it was written in that way, and from there look to the deeper and more universal trans-cultural meanings contained in it.

      First, it is necessary to understand that the Bible, like other sacred books, has its divine side and its human side. The human side is taken from the cultures in which the Bible was written, and is like a vessel containing divine truth, or like clothing both concealing and revealing the Divine Being within.

      This applies also to the picture of God presented in the Bible. For the most part, that picture is not God’s true nature, but rather the way God’s nature was perceived by the people of the cultures in which the Bible was written. The Bible itself suggests this poetically in saying of God:

      With the loyal you show yourself loyal;
      with the blameless you show yourself blameless;
      with the pure you show yourself pure;
      and with the crooked you show yourself perverse. (Psalm 18:25–26)

      In other words, God appears to people of different character according to their own character rather than according to the actual character of God. Hence one of my favorite sayings: “When a pickpocket encounters God, all the pickpocket sees is God’s pockets.”

      Although it may seem just wrong that God would be presented as being like what that particular culture thinks God is like, rather than as what God actually is, this is necessary for the sake of the salvation of the people of that culture, and of people in other cultures who are in a similar spiritual state. And realistically, vast numbers of people today aren’t much farther along on the spiritual path than were the bronze age nomads who feature in the Old Testament story.

      The purpose of the Bible, and of many other sacred books, is not so much to present correct doctrine and a correct understanding of the nature of God and spiritual reality as it is to move and inspire people away from worse spiritual states—states of greed, selfishness, anger, and oppression of others—toward better spiritual states involving love, compassion, and kindness toward their fellow human beings.

      And every journey, including every spiritual journey, must start from where people are, not from some theoretical place where we might wish they were. That is why God speaks to people where they are spiritually, and in their concept of God, rather than attempting to get them to leapfrog forward in their mind and spirit to states of understanding and spiritual life that are far beyond where they are right now.

      For those ancient people—and for billions of people even today—God is a super-powerful being who can do whatever he (as is usually conceived) wants to do. In their conception, God can and will “squash you like a bug” if you violate God’s commandments. And for people in that mindset, believing that God can and will do this is critical to moving them from evil states of being to good states of being. For them, “the fear of the Lord” is a very real thing, and it creates a fire under their butts to straighten out and fly right, to mix a couple of metaphors.

      So God allows people in low spiritual states to have a picture of God as an arbitrary, angry, and punishing being because that’s what’s necessary for those people to believe in order to move forward on their spiritual path.

      But the reality is that God’s “wrath” as pictured in the Bible and in the minds of people in similar spiritual states is simply the appearance to “crooked” human beings of God’s love. God’s love appears as wrath to them both because they are in states of opposition to God’s love, so that God’s love appears like a destroyer to them, and because thinking of God as wrathful drives them to leave behind their selfish, greedy, and evil ways and move toward love for the neighbor and love toward God. So the “wrath” of God as presented in the Bible is really a human appearance of God’s love. For more on this, see: “What is the Wrath of God? Why was the Old Testament God so Angry, yet Jesus was so Peaceful?

      All of this is why, when Swedenborg interprets places in the Bible that speak of “the wrath of God,” he regularly interprets it as meaning the love of God.

      The same is true of God being presented in the Bible as a destroyer who slaughters evil people and the enemies of Israel. The reality is that God kills and destroys no one. But people in that low spiritual mindset, must believe that God can and does destroy the evil or they would consider God to be a weak God who is not worthy to be believed in and followed. I myself have had a conservative Christian minister get angry at me because I said that there is actually no anger in God, only love. From her perspective, if God were not angry and wrathful at evil sinners who murder people in cold blood and sexually abuse children, and if he did not destroy them in the everlasting fires of hell, he would not be worthy of belief, and she would reject God altogether.

      But the reality is that our own evil destroys us if we do not leave it behind. We blame God for it, just as a criminal who gets sentenced to jail blames the judge rather than his or her own criminal actions that brought the sentence upon him- or herself. The reality is that we send ourselves to hell and kill ourselves spiritually when we cling to our evil and destructive desires, thoughts, and actions. As Psalm 34:21 says in the traditional KJV translation, “Evil shall slay the wicked.”

      So it wasn’t actually God who sent a (metaphorical) flood to destroy all the wicked people on earth, even though the Bible presents it that way. Rather, it was people’s own wickedness that caused them to destroy themselves and one another. The Great Flood is a metaphor for a flood of evil and falsity that overwhelmed most of humanity and caused it to die out spiritually, and perhaps physically as well.

      I could say more, but this is getting long, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

  6. tenderelftown says:

    Well, I hope i didn’t offend you with my comments. That’s wasn’t my intention, but I do tend to be too blunt at times.

    I have no doubt that you have spent a massive amount of time developing your interpretations of the various parts of the Bible and building your philosophy into a cohesive whole. But that’s your subjective interpretation and others have theirs, which, as I said, is the major stumbling block in trying to learn spiritual lessons from many of the old stories. Although, some of them a far more clear than others.

    Perhaps check out a YouTube Channel entitled InspiringPhilosophy. He really reminds of you a lot, very thoughtful and open-hearted. Of course, his views on Christianity aren’t going to align exactly yours, but I think you guys would likely have a lot to talk about. All the best

    • Lee says:

      Hi tenderelftown,

      No offense taken. Just explaining my view of things. In some sense, everything is subjective—even the idea that a material universe actually exists out there, and isn’t just a projection of human consciousness.

      • tenderelftown says:

        Interesting you say that. Because that’s what initially drew me to InspiringPhilosophy’s channel in the first place, his videos on virtual reality theory. Tom Campbell’s model shares that with IP, the difference being that IP thinks our consciousness is created within the VR – which makes no sense to me because a VR is not “real.” Wheres Campbell’s model says that our consciousness already existed – and currently exists in another dimension, or “reality frame,” as he calls it – and then we decide to enter into the “game” here because a “physical reality” is the most effective place to grow, spiritually.

        I think the evidence shows that the multi-lifetime model is what’s going on here. (See Jim Tucker and Ian Stevenson from the University of Virginia, and their decades long studies of past life memories in children, if your interested. Also, Michael Newton and Brian Weiss, etc., and their past life and “life between life” regressions. It’s the verification of the evidence in the historical record in these accounts that gives them their credibility, IMHO. James Linegar is probably the most well-known case of a past life memory in a child being verified to an actual person in a previous life. But there are hundreds of others, if not thousands, that are also compelling)

        I think we are all an inseparable part of our source consciousness/”God”, which is evolving to greater/broader states of love through us, through each of our personal spiritual evolution – over thousands of lifetimes. (During NDEs, people who “merge with the light” consistently report their realization that they are made of the same conscious stuff that “God” is made of. And they say they know everything that “God” knows while in this coupled state – the purpose of life, how this material reality works, etc. But when they uncouple from the light and return to their bodies, their memories of this knowledge quickly fades. Which also makes sense because they are no longer coupled to the source of that knowledge.) So in this model, “God” isn’t a finished product, but rather, an evolving entity. And we are like individual consciousness cells within “God’s” universal source consciousness.

        I think were are actually starting (probably just starting) to figure out what’s going on in this mysterious reality via our current direct evidence – in the form of people’s conscious experiences. All the best!

        • Lee says:

          Hi tenderelftown,

          I did also watch this InspiringPhilosophy video on science, materialism, and theism:

          And yes, that’s the sort of stuff that inclines me to believe that materialistic atheism is just as much a matter of faith as is theism.

          However, I am also wary of “proofs of the existence of God” based on science and the material universe. I tend to believe that God has specifically designed the universe so that God’s existence cannot be objectively proven, in order to preserve our freedom of choice in spiritual matters.

          Beyond that, I’m not a modern physicist, and I would hesitate to make any grand pronouncements about what “physics says.” I do take up similar themes in some of my articles here. But in general, I leave it to the physicists to debate the nature of material reality, and simply look in from time to time as an interested bystander. And I certainly don’t base my belief in God and spirit on the debates and conclusions of natural science.

          I do agree in a way with Campbell’s idea that physical reality “is the most effective place to grow, spiritually,” as you put it. However, I would state it as physical reality being the best—and only—place to start our process of spiritual growth. I think of the physical universe as being the womb in which our initial spiritual development takes place, to the point where we are sufficiently developed and human to be ready to be “born” into the spiritual world, where we will continue to develop spiritually to eternity.

          This means that in my view, there is no need to return to physical reality after our lifetime here, any more than there is a need for us to return to our mother’s womb after we have once been through the process of gestation there. But I have covered this more fully in my article, “The Bible, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Reincarnation.”

          About people in NDEs merging with the light, I would say, rather, that during their experiences in the spiritual world, NDEers’ higher spiritual consciousness is opened up, so that they are able to think spiritually, and there comprehend reality at a level that is a whole order of magnitude higher than what we are able to comprehend while our consciousness is still linked with the physical body. I do not believe that NDEers or other spiritual experiencers of various kinds truly experience the consciousness of God. But experiencing spiritual reality and consciousness is sufficiently vast and amazing beyond what we can experience here on earth that it may feel to those who experience it as if they are experiencing the universe as God does.

          And yes, unfortunately, the ability to remember and express spiritual realities once one’s conscious awareness has returned to its housing in the physical body is severely curtailed, though not entirely snuffed out. Swedenborg wrote extensively on the nature of the spiritual world. But from time to time, he would say that material thought and the words of material language simply cannot express the full reality of what he experienced in the spiritual world.

          I do agree that we are “made of God stuff.” But I also believe that this happens in such a way that we become distinct from God, and therefore non-God, although we remain filled with God. Another way of saying this is that I am a panentheist rather than a pantheist. These are tricky concepts. I grappled with some of them in my article, “Containers for God.”

    • Hoyle says:

      Thanks for the heads up on the “InspiringPhilosophy”. Interesting title for the program. Is is it intended to inspire philosophy or is it a philosophy of inspiration? In many ways, all religions are more about philosophy than truths.

    • Lee says:

      Hi tenderelftown,

      I’d like to add a some more substantive replies to my earlier quick reply.

      First, I really can’t take credit for “developing my interpretations of various parts of the Bible and building my philosophy into a cohesive whole.” In fact, at least 95% of that work is done in the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). I am piggybacking on what he wrote. He is the one who presented an integrated, cohesive method of spiritual interpretation of the Bible. And he is the one who presented a cohesive philosophy of the nature of reality. And he didn’t claim credit for that himself. He attributed it to divine instruction and guidance.

      Having said that, although I am steeped in Swedenborgian philosophy and religion from birth, I don’t uncritically accept everything Swedenborg wrote. There are areas where I think he was affected by the existing science and philosophy of his day, and where we have learned more since the 18th century and can now see things in a clearer light. For my general assessment of Swedenborg’s writings and teachings, see the article: “Do the Teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg take Precedence over the Bible?” written in response to a reader’s question.

      So my interpretation of the Bible really isn’t “my subjective interpretation.” It is an application of the method of Bible interpretation that I learned through a lifetime of training in and study of Swedenborg’s method of Bible interpretation via “correspondences,” or a system of “symbolism” that is more than mere symbolism, but is an expression of how the fundamental interrelationships between divine (God), spiritual, and material reality work.

      Yes, I do add my own personal take and experience to it. But the method of interpretation is really not mine at all, nor is it subjective in the usual sense. It is a product of applying definite rules that are part of a coherent and universal system not only of Bible interpretation, but of the nature of reality.

      Of course, none of this means that you have to agree with Swedenborg, or with me, about the nature of the Bible and how it is to be interpreted spiritually. I simply want to be clear that my interpretations of the Bible are not something I have subjectively developed on my own as a personal philosophy, but are something I derive through application of a learned system that I believe reflects the nature both of the Bible and of reality as a whole.

    • Lee says:

      Hi tenderelftown,

      Thanks for the reference to the InspiringPhilosophy YouTube channel. I have now watched half a dozen to a dozen of his videos in whole or in part. As you say, I find his channel thoughtful and open-hearted, but also marred by what I believe is a faulty and non-biblical traditional Christian theology. For example, he defends the Trinity of Persons, which I believe was the first and biggest doctrinal error of Christianity, which led to all subsequent doctrinal errors, to the point where the vast bulk of current Christian theology is simply false and non-biblical.

      In saying this, I don’t believe I am merely casting stones. Rather, having debated traditional Christians for many years, and having closely studied the biblical basis they give for their beliefs for many years, it has become abundantly clear to me that the doctrines that are taken as fundamental “Christian” doctrine in the bulk of traditional Christianity—from the Trinity of Persons through Jesus satisfying the honor or justice or wrath of the Father by his death on the cross through the Protestant doctrines of justification by faith alone and Penal Substitution—simply are not stated in the Bible, and in many cases are flatly contradicted by the plain statements and teachings of the Bible.

      You can see more about this in my article, “‘Christian Beliefs’ that the Bible Doesn’t Teach,” and the various articles linked from it.

      I started to watch an InspiringPhilosophy video supporting the Trinity, but must admit I stopped when it stated that the Bible presents God as being three Persons. It simply doesn’t. The Bible never refers to Father, Son, or Holy Spirit as “persons.” And it never speaks of a “Trinity” either. This was a later, human invention.

      But to stick with the theme of the current article, about atheism vs. theism, I did find this InspiringPhilosophy video interesting:

      I was mostly with him along the way in his main point, which is that the human brain seems to be wired to believe in God, and that not believing in God actually requires more mental effort than believing in God.

      I was, however, disappointed when he got to assigning reasons for the atheism of atheists:

      Perhaps atheists have invented their beliefs to delude themselves into thinking there is no higher power to tell them how to live.

      Perhaps it makes them feel comfortable to think they do not have to worry about being judged for their actions later on?

      And a little later in the video:

      Unless they have an underlying emotional desire to reject God perhaps due to:

      Anger

      The desire to be their own God

      These are all variations of the traditional Christian “atheists are evil” idea—even if they may be somewhat mild, modern variations on that theme. This assignment of bad motives to atheists for their atheism suggests to me that the unnamed person making these videos believes, as traditional Christians ordinarily do, that atheists will go to hell. If so, then I think he is quite mistaken, as I outlined in my article, “Do Atheists Go to Heaven?

      My own contact, discussion, and debate with atheists over the years simply doesn’t support the traditional Christian “atheists are evil” stance. I have found, instead, that most of them are sincere, thoughtful, and kind people. Yes, there are indeed some who seem to get their greatest joy from attacking and denigrating Christians in the most insulting ways possible. But those, I think, are just the loudmouths who get the air time. Your average present-day atheist, in my experience, is a good and decent person who wants the best for humanity, and who lives according to a moral code that is seen as being greater than his or her own self-interest and personal benefit.

      In my experience, the common traditional Christian charge that atheists are atheists because they don’t want to have to follow any moral code and don’t want anyone telling them what to do is simply false in the case of most atheists. And yes, there is anger on the part of many atheists. But that anger is, in my view, largely justified. And it is really a misdirected anger that should properly be directed against traditional Christianity itself rather than against God.

      I believe that the maker of the InspiringPhilosophy video misses the primary reason most atheists today are atheists. And he misses it because his own so-called “Christian” beliefs are the cause of it.

      Most atheists today are atheists, I believe, because they can simply no longer accept the horrible, irrational, and despotic picture of God painted by traditional Christianity. To their eyes “God” (as presented in traditional Christianity) is a bastard and a madman who arbitrarily sends billions of people to eternal torture in the flames of hell simply for believing the “wrong” thing. And this “God” inspires many “Christians” to persecute gays, Jews, Muslims, people who masturbate, people who have sex before marriage, and on and on.

      In other words, most atheists today, I believe, reject God because of the arbitrary, irrational, and hateful picture of God that traditional Christianity has presented to the world.

      And in this, I am in complete sympathy with the atheists.

      I believe that traditional Christianity has a corrupt and false picture of God, and a whole host of corrupt and false doctrines that flow from that corrupt and false picture of God—the primary one being the idea that all non-Christians will go to hell. The Bible clearly and explicitly states the opposite, especially in Romans 2:5–16, and in many other places as well.

      In short, I believe that traditional Christianity itself, with its false and non-biblical doctrines about God and salvation, is the primary cause of the rise of atheism in the West over the past few centuries. And I believe that the rise of atheism will not peak and subside until traditional Christianity and its false doctrines have been entirely repudiated by Western culture. And as I’ve said in these articles, I believe that the present-day atheist movement is a tool in the hands of God to hasten the repudiation and destruction of that old and false “Christianity.”

      That repudiation and destruction will, I believe, clear the way for that false “Christianity” to be replaced replaced with a better, broader, truer, and actually Bible-based form of Christianity.

      That is the form of Christianity that I believe Swedenborg presented to the world over two centuries ago. And that is the form of Christianity that we present to the world here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life.

  7. tenderelftown says:

    Do you think it would be beneficial for Christians to stop worrying about the details of their particular interpretations of the Bible – such as whether or not the triune God represents an accurate representation of God (personally, I think it’s just a metaphor) – and focused solely on their all-important spiritual growth? This is a lesson that I need to keep reinforcing within myself because I am still struggling with it. I need to remember that it doesn’t matter what spiritual path a person is on, if any. The important thing is whether or not we are putting a daily focus on improving ourselves as human beings: with an intent of growing from selfish “children” into selfless adults.

    “That repudiation and destruction will, I believe, clear the way for that false “Christianity” to be replaced replaced with a better, broader, truer, and actually Bible-based form of Christianity,”

    I’ve “talked” with IP enough to know that he feels exactly the same way you do: that his interpretation of Christianity is “a better, truer and actually Bible-based form of Christianity,” It’s pretty obvious that there are thousands upon thousands of other Christian teachers who also feel this way. You are all convinced that your way is the “right way,” and yet you can’t all be right. In a broader sense, what do you think this means? What do you think this says about the human psyche?

    This is basically why I don’t believe in belief. I prefer to think of my worldview as my current working model of reality, so to speak – which is always subject to updating, should I discover some new, pertinent information that might be useful to my understanding of our reality.

    “I believe that the present-day atheist movement is a tool in the hands of God to hasten the repudiation and destruction of that old and false “Christianity.”

    What if this is an incorrect belief? Then what? Cheers.

    • Lee says:

      Hi tenderelftown,

      I do very much agree with you that the most important thing is not beliefs, but in your words, “putting a daily focus on improving ourselves as human beings: with an intent of growing from selfish ‘children’ into selfless adults.”

      And what I find most upsetting about traditional Christian beliefs—especially of the Protestant variety—is precisely that they don’t put the emphasis on improving ourselves as human beings. Rather, they put the emphasis on believing the correct thing as the only means to salvation. Meanwhile, what I would call spiritual growth or “regeneration” is generally put on the back burner as something that maybe you do if you want to be a really good Christian, but that isn’t actually necessary for salvation, and can therefore be dispensed with if it’s unpleasant or inconvenient.

      Yes, I believe that particular beliefs are much less important than committing oneself every day to becoming a better, more loving, more thoughtful person. But that’s what beliefs are supposed to direct and guide us to do. And if they don’t, then they are worthless beliefs. I say more about this whole issue in my article, “Does Doctrine Matter? Why is it Important to Believe the Right Thing?

      I haven’t spent enough time watching the InspiringPhilosophy videos to determine just which Christian perspective he represents—whether a variety of Catholicism, of Protestantism, of Orthodox Christianity, or of a smaller non-aligned sect. But what I did watch, while enjoyable and thought-provoking in many respects, also raised some concerns, as I expressed in my previous comments.

      However, the reality is that most ordinary Christians, while believing certain dogmas because that’s what their church teaches them to believe, do actually put their emphasis on living a good life of loving God and loving the neighbor, as Jesus Christ himself taught. And that, rather than holding to their particular church’s doctrines intellectually, is what “saves” them as people.

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

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