Pastor Herb Swanson rationalizes his cowardice

In a post from earlier today (which, by the time this is published, will be tomorrow), I linked a three part response to an old post of mine about the truthiness of religion.  I tried to initiate a dialogue with Pastor Swanson about some of the errors in his analysis of my views in order to try and dispel common misunderstandings of (new) atheist views.   I think it’s important to keep open and honest dialogue with people of other beliefs in order to see if understanding is possible, even if agreement is not.  However, it was pretty obvious to me from his early responses that he was not taking me seriously and had no real interest in dialogue, but I went ahead in good…faith…and tried to articulate my thoughts to him via email.

But after some back-and-forth, I was not getting any of his thought back; no responses to my criticism at all.  Not completely perturbed, I decided to continue composing my thoughts concerning what I would like theist leaders,  like him, to understand about atheists.  I was generally curious if he understood what I had to say or if they would seem strange or interesting to him.  But rather than get any response of substance for day or so of email correspondence, he finally emailed me quoting what I said at the bottom of my earlier blog post, apparently ignoring the content of my emails altogether.  The entirety of his most recent email was the following:

To quote you regarding the Rev. Herb Swanson, “I will hope to get some actual dialogue going with him, because he is just another theist who seems to have a lot of misinformation about what new atheism is all about.”  Serious dialogue requires trust, which does not begin with putting the dialogue partner in a box labeled, “just another theist.”  I’ve engaged in a fair amount of dialogue with people of other faiths, Buddhist mostly but with Muslims as well, and this is not the way its done.  I appreciate your desire to instruct me and will take to heart the point that there’s more for me to learn.  Actually, I knew that anyway.  But, all of this has only encouraged me to stay clear of the battle you new atheist guys are engaged in as I seek to make sense out of how scientific thought and developments in science can help me better understand and express my faith.  Evolutionary theology – not sure what it means yet, but that’s the sort of thing I’m really interested in – process theology stuff.
Well, any way, don’t see that this is going to work.  Too bad.  But, as I say my plate is really full anyway.  Gee whiz.  Just another theist.  Really?  My bad.  Peace, Herb Swanson

OK, I admit that the choice of words “he is just another theist who seems to have a lot of misinformation about what new atheism is” may not have been ideal.  But what is really frustrating is that the content of my emails was ignored because of it.  Again, it’s about tone.  Just like the arguments between the accomodationists and us gnu atheists, there is no addressing the actual content.  It seems to be mere rationalization of not wanting to address any actual content; we are so fundamentalist, so angry, and so unworthy of their ecumenical and respectful character that they merely have to quote a seemingly disrespectful phrase and wash their hands of us.


So, for greater context, and put this in the public record, I want to publish my attempts to articulate my ideas to Pastor Swanson.  What will follow below are the emails which we both sent after some initial friendly correspondence between us.  After making some comments about how I was disappointed to see no comments were allowed on his blog and that his readers would not see my responses, he wrote me saying:

Hi Shaun,
I appreciate your concern.  Let’s see where this goes, if anywhere; and if our exchanges actually prove fruitful, one way or another your concerns will get shared with “my” readers (never thought of folks who read the blog that way, I guess).  We’ll see.  Herb

This was after the email, quoted in its entirety from earlier today (it’s actually yesterday as of now), in which I gave him a lot of substance to which to respond.  I assumed at the time that he had been busy, and that may actually have been the case.  So,with that assumption I wrote back to him the following:

I’ll share an oft-repeated truism which is popular amoung the atheist community, especually around discussions between atheists and theists.  When you debate (or discuss) a topic with someone with whom you disagree (or with whom you expect to disagree, at least), the points you make are not for the sake of the person with whom you dialogue, rather they are for the people listening or reading.

The running assumption behind this idea is that you are almost certainly not going to change the mind of one defending their position.  There is something about the structure of our brains which does not allow our opinions to be changed while in a discussion, or at least to make it extremely rare.  Being aware of this, I recognize that while we may learn things about the other’s perspective, which is valuable in itself, I have no expectation to convince you of anything.  At this point, I think my goal is to have you understand my position as a new/gnu atheist, and not for you to agree with me about anything.  This way, ideally, when you speak to your audience (whether it a congregation or your blog readers), you will have a more rounded perspective on what at least some atheists say.

I say that knowing you will almost certainly misunderstand essential elements of my worldview no matter how clearly I explain myself, as even porfessional apologists and debators still get so much wrong no matter how often they are corrected about the opinions of their debate opponent’s position.

I blog for the readers.  And those who read my blog are my readers, menaing that for the most part they tend to agree with me.  I’d bet that most of your repeat readers agree with you more often than not.  The down side of lack of comments means that they will see, by necessity, less dissent than they would otherwise.  They see one side of the argument, with no response.  Of course there will be trolls, assholes, and irrational people who say stupid and annoying things.  But I think that this is a fair price for free speech.

In any case, I will look forward to talking with you.

To which he responded, within a half-hour:

Hi Shaun,
OK.  So what is it you’d like to have me understand?  Herb

Ok, so now I have written two emails with considerable substance, and have gotten nothing back but meta-discussion about talking more…possibly…if it is fruitful.  A little frustrated by this, I decide to just bear down and articulate more thoughts, hoping he will keep in mind what I have already said.  here is the email I composed shortly after that one-line email above:

Well, I was hoping to get some response to my initial email.  I tried to correct some of the claims you made in your posts, and I was wondering what you thought of what I said.  But, ok, I’ll spell out some of the big issues for you.

Generally, I want you to understand that many of the people in the atheist community are people of genuine desire to understand the world around them.  Most of them are former theists, usually former Christians.  I’m an exemption to this rule, but I wanted to point that out.

Most atheists I have met do not make any absolute claims about the existence of any gods.  The definition of atheism is (And this is a little bit of a controversy, as some atheists have a different definition) someone who lacks beliefs in any gods.  Most atheists would be open to new evidence, others’ experiences, and would be very open to friendly discussion.  I, for example, have been having conversations with theists for many years, and consider myself very experienced in such conversations.

Many atheists, such as myself, primarily identify as skeptics (not to be confused with cynics).  Our epistemological view is one of saying that for something to be considered true, it has to be demonstrated empirically.  It is derived from the methodological naturalism necessary in science; science can only deal with physical things by definition.  The metaphysical naturalism that I hold as true I reach via philosophical argument, and is not an absolute conclusion.  I simply see no reason to believe anything non-physical exists; it does not explain anything, and the gaps in our knowledge cannot be logically filled with claims of supernaturalism without justification.  I simply don’t see such justification.

This skepticism is where the use of science and empiricism comes into play, and why I think many people assume (as you did) that we use the scientific method the same way that literalists use their (more absolute version of) faith.  As skeptics, we demand a higher criteria for belief in things.  We hold the idea that the more extravagant the claim, the more quality the evidence has to be.  And because we don’t see any method which [can] compete with that of empirical science, we use it primarily, perhaps exclusively.  We are, of course, wiling to consider new evidence, but the use of another method will have to be demonstrated as useful in some way before it can be taken seriously.

You should also understand that not all atheists are skeptics, and that many of them will have bad reasons and bad arguments for their lack of belief.  I am as critical of them, upon talking with them, as I am of anyone else.  We need to keep our own house clean.

Most atheists are not strictly logical; we are not Vulcan-like, eschewing emotional considerations because they are all delusions or anything like that.  While some atheists can be largely rational, sometimes seemingly too rational, it is because we appreciate reason-based conversations with people who challenge us intellectually.  We are often people who argue with each other about just about anything, because we are interested in the truth and don’t mind furious debates.  We are also often emotionally open, loving, compassionate, and generous.

We do not hate Christians or have any ill feelings for them, in general.  Now, we have ire for some Christians (say the Westboro Baptist Church), but our dislike is directed at the theology, not the people.  We “new atheists” are particularly concerned with the theology because we genuinely believe, upon reflection based upon experience, that many theological ideas [are] not only are harmful to many things we value, but seem simply untrue.  That is, even if religious ideas inspire people to be better and so forth, we realize that these personal growth and transcending experiences are possible without the theological baggage which we find lacking in moral and intellectual value.

That is, we know theology.  Not all of us went to seminary, but many of us did.  I, personally, have studied Christian history extensively and have read the Bible completely (much of it several times) and seek to understand different religious traditions as an anthropological exercise, among other reasons.  It is only after this experience with theology, Christian culture, and the philosophical arguments can we become confident (often seen as arrogance) in our atheism.  Quite simply, we are familiar with apologetics, usually have had hundreds of conversations with believers (whether family, friends, or otherwise), and get frustrated that they usually know less than we do about the religious tradition they follow.  Studies have shown that atheists have a better understanding of religious beliefs than the religious.  Thus we often feel, and often are, more educated and knowledgeable about religion in general.  And when we talk with the educated believers, we at least have a common share of information, even if we disagree about it.

Finally, and this is more specific to new atheists in particular, we view so-called “sophisticated theology” as often linguistic salad; postmodern meaninglessness.  As a philosopher, I am familiar with postmodern philosophy, and the modern theology I have read, whether it is process theology or otherwise, seems to be of the same caliber.  We are interested in the truth as it can be gleaned through the best intellectual methods we have developed.  We don’t respect faith, as even if it is not the absolutist faith of literalists, it still points to the abjuring of reason for the sake of belief.  As Aquinas said, faith precedes reason, and as Luther said, reason is a whore.

It is there where I think our worldviews differ the strongest.  Our strong words that look so absolutist and angry at this point in the conversation are due to the fact that criticism of each of our most important (“sacred”) values always looks more aggressive than they really are.  There simply is no way to say something critical of someone’s values while sounding nice, which means when we talk about this strongest of distinctions between worldviews emotions become more exposed. We are not trying to be offensive, we just can’t say what we really think without causing offense.  It’s unavoidable, but we have to be honest anyway because for us, respect means honesty.

And in response to that, I only get a complaint about an admittedly poor choice of words and the implication that there really is no point in continuing the dialogue (the first quoted response above).  Not even an attempt to respond to the content of my emails which I spent a little time working on.  It really, honestly, hurts my feelings a little. And so I responded with a short email of my own:


What is frustrating about that is that you focus on one line, taken in a context in which it was not meant, and ignore the vast content I tried to articulate.  It is not me that does not want to dialogue.  Rationalize it as you like.


Snarky, I know, but at this point it is obvious that this is not a person who wants to dialogue.  He will make noises about us being absolutist and like the literalists, and I’m sure he has many reasons…or something…for his faith, but I see none of it.  I only see the arrogance that we atheists are accused of.  I only see an up-turned nose at my direction, as I am simply not worthy to talk with.   I’m simply too rude, too harsh, to take seriously.  He’s “just some theist,” and so I’m just some atheist.  Too bad, indeed.

This is reminiscent of the charges by theologians who say that (for example) Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion was insufficiently versed in sophisticated theology to be a serious criticism of theology.  Eric McDonald has been doing a series of posts about the reviews of Dawkin’s famous book (here is a recent example), and has pointed out that there really is no substance worth being versed in.  Jerry Coyne has been making the same kind of point for quite a while now, as well.  And having some familiarity with theology myself, I easily agree with this diagnosis of theology being unworthy of much attention.  I suppose that is how Pastor Swanson views me.  I suppose my sophisticated atheism is really mere postmodernist dribble, rationalizing my desire to be disobedient to god and to live in sin.  I suppose there is no real substance, no real subject at all, to my thoughts.  Because otherwise Pastor Herb Swanson is merely taking the easy road out of a situation he does not want wade into.  The atheist pool is unclean, distasteful, and vile.  Or, perhaps,  he is cowardly rationalizing a reason to ignore me and my ilk.

Yet, still, he will post a part 4 of his series in response to my elder post.  Still no comments allowed, and so still no dissent visible.

In other words, like just another theist.

And yes, this time I meant to be offensive.  I see no reason to be otherwise at this point.  Cowardice deserves no respect.

The truth of my truthiness

Way back in the stone ages, also known as 2009, I posted some thoughts about religion on this blog (I know, shocking!).  Riding the memetic wave of “truthiness” which was all the rage back then (ah, the good ol’ days…), I wrote a piece called Truthiness of Religion to rave reviews, mass popularity, and numerous awards…which I turned down and subsequently requested never to be publicized that I was offered such prestigious recognition…because I’m humble….   Also, that mass popularity has seemed to have been forgotten, almost as if it never actually happened.  Strange….

Let’s just let that subject drop, m’kay?

I had not forgotten about the piece, but I didn’t expect it to receive any attention either.  It was just one of hundreds of posts that sits in the archives of posts here, many of which are occasionally discovered by some internet surfer (I might be going to far into the stone age with that usage…).  But in the last few days, this particular post inspired not one, not two, but three responses!

OK, that’s an exaggeration.  In reality it was a three-part (and they are all short) response from one blogger; a Presbyterian pastor in New York by the name of Herb Swanson.  So, here are the three parts:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Now, I don’t want to respond in full yet.  The reason is that I have emailed Pastor Swanson and he has said he will get back to me.  I will quote my email to him in its entirety below, as I think all the salient points are hit upon there:

I discovered your post in response to mt comments about truthiness and religion.  I was interested in commenting because I think you got two essential facts wrong about my views, but you don’t seem to allow comments on your blog (which is unfortunate, because it does not allow for dialogue or genuine openness.  Much like a sermon; no questions or comments from the audience.)

You said, on part I:

The reason they are so angry at each other is because they are fighting over common territory, which they both agree is “the truth.”  They both think about truth in absolute terms.  The new atheists believe that there is only one truth, which is the truth of science.  For them science is an absolutely dependable method for discovering the truth.  The literalists posit their absolute truth in the “facts” of their faith.  There is no room for dialogue with either group.  We best leave them to their war.

This is not true.  I am not an absolutist in any way.  I recognize the slipperiness of truth (I’m a philosopher).  I believe that science, far from being absolute, is probabilistic and gives us tentative conclusions.  These tentative conclusions, called theories, become less tentative the longer they survive scrutiny.   Occasionally, with great effort and verification, our theories become better an better.  A classic example is the fact of gravity and its explanation.  Einstein’s improvement of our understanding, the theory of relativity, is better than Newton’s explanation.  Newtons observations are still pragmatically true for every-day uses, but it’s not “True.”  Quite possibly, Einstein’s general relativity will be improved upon, and so until then it is our best explanation and works for levels of description bordering on our current understanding.  One we have a better understanding of string theory and such, some new genius might add more fine detail to the theories explaining gravity and the other fundamental forces.  So General relativity is only “true” in the sense that it is the current best explanation which has been repeatedly verified.  No other explanation is better than it.  That’s what truth is, for me.  This is not an absolutist’s position at all.

Therefore, I do not claim any absolute truth but I do say that the claims of supernaturalism do not pass skeptical analysis.  The burden of proof is on the claimant (e.g. you), and I am not convinced so far, despite earnest attempts to understand. 

Also, you claim that we are not worth talking to.  The funny thing is that we are not generally interested in dialogue with the literalists because they are so different from us.  The canard that we are like them, just on the other side of the issue, is one we are getting tired of.  Not only are we not absolutists (which they tend to be), we share almost nothing with them other than the superficial similarity of the desire for truth; I say superficial because their methodology is terrible for attaining any.  Our methodologies for truth (our epistemology) are drastically different, hence our different conclusions.  They talk of truth a lot, but they don’t have any justification to back up that use.  You cannot say the same thing about science. And if you think you can, then you are falling prey to the postmodernist relativism of modern intellectual thought.  And no, relativism and absolutism are not the two dichotomies from which one can draw a false seed of my own demise.  In other words, if one is not an absolutist, they are not, therefore, a relativist.  That is sophomoric at best (just in case you had that thought….)

In part II, you say:

McGonigal then distinguishes between two states of mind, the first this creative one and the second a critical or analytical state of mind.  Only the second state leads to truth. 

This is also not true, at least not completely.  I recognize that good art has much to teach us, and we learn much through it.  Creativity is a source for truth, but it cannot, on its own, determine that something is true.  I think that distinction is essential here.  I only think that we need to verify the things we learn via skepticism when they make claims about the nature of reality.  Quite often, things learned from creative impulses are true without much need for verification, and other times even when this seems to be the case, it is due to some cognitive error due to our poorly evolved truth-detection machines in our head. 

But more importantly, I do not think we can make a clean distinction between creativity and reason.  The notion that we can is based upon an ancient idea derived from Plato, and recent neuroscience shows that the two attributes are linked in more ways than we are consciously aware.  This is true not only with moral thinking, but with so called “pure reason” (a fiction that even the great Kant was susceptible).  There is no pure reasoning, nor is there any pure feeling; that is too simplistic a categorization of what goes on in our heads.

Later in the same post, you say:

McGonigal believes that physical reality is reality.  Anything pertaining to the emotions or the a-rational is not real, not true.  Only physical realities can be true.

I want to clarify here.  I believe that emotions, in fact all experience, is a part of physical reality.  I just believe that sometimes what our body/brain come sup with in terms of experience is not always a mirror of any real thing outside of it, however.  That is, the experiences are real, but the simulations that are represented are not always simulations of real things.  We can simulate reality, but we also make grave errors in perceptions, whether via optical illusions or otherwise. Our brains are very easily fooled, as people such as James Randi and other magicians have taught us.

I could comment on more, but most of part III think you might guess what I would say.  Well, given how poorly you understand the “new atheist” position, based upon your comments in your posts, I will not make that assumption.  I will, nonetheless, leave it alone.  If you wish to discuss that we can do so.

The fact that you don’t leave these posts open to public comment, indicates that you are the one who does not want dialogue.  You think there is no talking to us, but you don’t even try.  You make assumptions about what we think rather than ask, and when you do make those assumptions, you do not allow a public forum for us to respond.

I’ve never seen an atheist blog that does not allow comments.  I’ve seen many Christian blogs that do as you do.  That speaks volumes about our relative interest in dialogue.

I will hope to get some actual dialogue going with him, because he is just another theist who seems to have a lot of misinformation about what new atheism is all about.  I’m thinking that I will also have to alert him to my new project, which is intended for people like him and his congregation.  I will post any further developments about our correspondence in coming days.

(BTW, I’m still in correspondence with Dr. Robert Benne.  Right now, not much to report on, just having a discussion about epistemology at the moment.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here is some linkage: one, two, and three)