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The Epistemology of Imagination

The Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann recalls a time when she was in the UK studying contemporary people who practice magic, when suddenly something inexplicable happened to her [1]:

The author wrote that all these were just names for forces that flowed from a higher spiritual reality into this one, through the vehicle of the trained mind. And as I strained to imagine what the author thought it would be like to be that vehicle, I began to feel power in my veins — to really feel it, not to imagine it. I grew hot. I became completely alert, more awake than I usually am, and I felt so alive. It seemed that power coursed through me like water through a chute. I wanted to sing. And then wisps of smoke came out of my backpack, in which I had tossed my bicycle lights. One of them was melting.

This bizarre experience did not make Luhrmann a believer in a “higher spiritual reality.” She writes:

But just having a strange and powerful experience doesn’t determine what you believe. I walked off that train with a new respect for why people believed in magic, not a new understanding of reality. Sometimes people have remarkable experiences, and then tuck them away as events they can’t explain.

I find that truly fascinating. She goes on in this piece to tell the story of Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine, who had a supernatural experience on the day of his wedding, involving his bride’s dead grandfather. Despite this inexplicable event, an event that was not subjective — that is, others observed it too — it did not change the atheistic materialist way he sees the world. Check out Shermer’s essay about it. [2] His German fiancée had been sent from back home a box of her beloved late grandfather’s things. The box included his transistor radio, which did not work. Shermer says he tried to fix it, but it was unfixable. Here’s what happened next:

Three months later, after affixing the necessary signatures to our marriage license at the Beverly Hills courthouse, we returned home, and in the presence of my family said our vows and exchanged rings. Being 9,000 kilometers from family, friends and home, Jennifer was feeling amiss and lonely. She wished her grandfather were there to give her away. She whispered that she wanted to say something to me alone, so we excused ourselves to the back of the house where we could hear music playing in the bedroom. We don’t have a music system there, so we searched for laptops and iPhones and even opened the back door to check if the neighbors were playing music. We followed the sound to the printer on the desk, wondering—absurdly—if this combined printer/scanner/fax machine also included a radio. Nope.

At that moment Jennifer shot me a look I haven’t seen since the supernatural thriller The Exorcist startled audiences. “That can’t be what I think it is, can it?” she said. She opened the desk drawer and pulled out her grandfather’s transistor radio, out of which a romantic love song wafted. We sat in stunned silence for minutes. “My grandfather is here with us,” Jennifer said, tearfully. “I’m not alone.”

Just like Luhrmann, Shermer concluded that this had not been a product of his imagination — though he admits that if he had heard this story from someone else, he would have written it off as some sort of hallucination — but he also did not draw any larger metaphysical lesson from it. Shermer bracketed it off as just one of those things.

You could say that people like this are professional skeptics who can’t let go of the convictions with which they make sense of the world, even when the facts of experience falsify them. And you would be right. When people say they would believe in God, or at least in the world of spirit, if only they would see evidence, I don’t believe them. I mean, I think this is the story they tell themselves, a story they believe to be true. But it probably isn’t true. In truth, they are more likely to dismiss the experience as a hallucination, or, if that is wildly implausible — as in the stories of Luhrmann and Shermer — then they will set it aside as an anomaly. Anything to keep the event from changing them. When his followers suggested to Jesus that he perform more miracles to win more disciples, Jesus said, in effect, that would do no good for people who are determined not to believe.

This is true even for some people who do not have a philosophical commitment to skepticism and materialism. In my soon-to-be-published book How Dante Can Save Your Life [3], I have a chapter about the living relationship we have to the dead: what Christians call “the communion of saints.” This is a major theme in the Divine Comedy. On his journey into the afterlife, the pilgrim Dante is awakened to this tinyhowdante [4]reality, and how our relationship with our fellow man — that is, our fellow men who are not damned — continues even after this mortal life, and in fact continues across the boundary between life and death.

In the book, I tell the amazing story — one I have repeated on this blog — about how the ghost of my grandfather, Dede, lingered around my mom and dad’s house days after his death. He stayed near to my father, his son, with whom he had had a strained relationship in the last few years of his life. My father, a Methodist, gave me permission to call a Catholic priest to come deal with the matter. The priest brought with him a Cajun Catholic grandmother who had a powerful spiritual gift of discernment. From How Dante Can Save Your Life [3]:

“It’s him,” said the priest. “And he says he can’t move on unless you help him get forgiveness.”

My father froze.

“Daddy,” I said, “tell him about what happened between you and Dede!”

And so he did, revealing everything about the pain of his father’s rejection and his fidelity to the old man in spite of it all. After he finished, Father Termini said quietly to my father, “Do you forgive him?”

“I do,” said my father, nearly breathless.

Father Termini blessed the house, and a week later he had a mass for the repose of Dede’s soul. There were no more ghostly visitations at our house.

I believe that upon his death, my grandfather saw how much his son had loved him, and how his son suffered and sacrificed for his sake. And Dede was remorseful. His sorrow was so great that he could not advance spiritually. He could not let go of this world without his son’s forgiveness.

Can I explain this theologically? No, not really. But I believe I saw the power of a living man’s forgiveness free the soul of a dead man trapped by guilt and let him move on to the next life.

To make this clear, I don’t have firm theological categories that can explain what happened that week in Louisiana — but I know that it really did happen. My father believes it was all real as well. And yet, as I document in the book, this did not change him in the least. Unlike Luhrmann and Shermer, my dad is a believer in God, so he has no prior commitments that prevent him from accepting what happened as having meaning (as opposed to being just one of those things).

And yet, for him, it was just one of those things. His refusal to take the meaning of this event into his heart and allow it to change him, to open himself to grace and to the power of forgiveness, has had dramatic, profoundly tragic repercussions in the relationship between him and me. And it had more hopeful implications for what it told me I needed to do to be healed. I tell the story in How Dante in hope that it shakes at least some readers out of egotistical obstinacy that threatens to rob them and their loved ones of so much.

We are all subject to deny truths about ourselves and the world around us that threaten our settled convictions. It is as true of atheists as it is of Christians, and anybody else. One way Dante saved my life — or rather, one way God used Dante to break through the high walls of egotism that kept me from His healing mercies — is by opening my imagination, and leading me to think of myself and the world around me in new ways. The one quality all of the souls in the Inferno share is utter confidence in themselves. In the mortal life, they made a hell for themselves by closing themselves off to metanoia [5] — that is, repentance. And God gave them for all eternity what they loved on this earth: themselves.

To be open to repentance is to be open to the source of life. Dante teaches us that no spiritual progress is possible without humility. Humility requires us to admit that we don’t know everything. This is not a conversion of the mind; it is a conversion of the heart. Without it, we are stuck, certainly in this life, and perhaps in the next. In my grandfather’s case, I believe that after his death, God allowed him to see how he had wronged my father, and how my father had been looking out for his interests all along. God granted my dad and my grandfather an extraordinary grace by giving them the opportunity for forgiveness after Dede’s death.

The other night, standing before a crowded room in Dallas, I told a story from How Dante about how repentance opened up the spiritual pathways for me, and occasioned a life-changing mystical experience of God’s grace involving what I believe was an angel — an experience so powerful that even at this moment I can physically feel its effects. This is in the book, but I still felt strange talking about something so intimate and, well, freaky, in front of an audience. But it occurred to me as I halted that part of the humility that is saving my life is being willing to stand in front of people who might well think I’m crazy, and talk about what happened to me, about what God did for me, and how real it all is — and can be for them too.

How will these stories be received? It depends on the imagination of individual readers. Some will think I’m making it up, or was in some way deceived. Some will think they are true, but have no bearing on their own lives. But some will see and hear in these stories a sign of what is really real, and how repentance and forgiveness can change — and save — their lives, as it did mine. As Dante knew, this is not a matter of the mind; it’s a matter of the heart.

UPDATE: My friend the Catholic philosopher Francis Beckwith [6]writes with a personal story. He has given permission to me to share it with you. The first part is from the eulogy Frank gave for his father last month:

In December 2013, when my father had told us that he had cancer, I made it a point to pray for him each morning and each evening from that day forward. Although I wanted to do so by asking for the assistance of one of the great saints of the Church, who that saint would be was not obvious. After a little research, I discovered that St. Anthony of Padua was the patron saint of cancer victims. So, St. Anthony it was. Up until the morning my father died, I uttered the same prayer to St. Anthony twice a day, and had not told anyone what I was doing, not even my wife. On Saturday, when my mother was going through my father’s belongings, she handed me what looked like a tiny booklet, no more than a half an inch in height. She said that my father had carried it in his pocket for many years, though in the past 14 months he seemed more insistent that he always have it on his person. I never knew this about my Dad, and my mother confessed that she had never looked closely at the item and thus was not sure what it was. As she handed it to me, I noticed that on the front it read, “St. Anthony of Padua, Pray for Us.” On the inside was a medal and relic of St. Anthony, along with this prayer, “St. Anthony, help me experience peace of mind and heart in my present needs. Free me from needless worry and burdensome fears. Grant me unfailing trust and an awareness of God’s loving mercy. Amen.” If this had not happened to me, I would not have believed it. But it did happen, and I will never fail to see it as a gift of God by way of my father.

Frank adds:

The back story:

On February 10 my wife and I arrived in Rome for a semester-long research leave. Two days later I was contacted by my brother that my father’s health had taken a turn for the worse. So, we booked a flight from Rome to Las Vegas for Feb 16. (We grew up in Vegas and parents still reside there). I was able to see my father, and he knew we had arrived from Rome. I was sitting next to him when he died on the morning of Ash Wednesday, February 18. He died at 5:49 am, soon after I had said the rosary and the divine mercy. The day before I handed him the rosary beads that had been given to me when I met Pope Francis in June 2013. I put the beads in my father’s right hand and whispered in his ear, “The Pope gave me these rosary beads. I want you to have them.” When the mortuary arrived to pick up his body at my parents’ home, the beads were still in his hand.  They asked if I wanted the beads back. I said, “no.” So, they took the beads along with his body.  When my mother, siblings, and our spouses arrived at the mortuary the next day to make arrangements, I told the funeral director that the beads should remain with him.  During the wake the beads were beautifully displayed in his hands as he lay in the open casket. I then asked the funeral director for permission place the Padua medal in his jacket pocket. My father was buried with the beads in his hands and the medal in his pocket.

Since then:

We returned to Rome on Sunday night, March 1. On the 3rd my wife and I went for a walk to the Basilica of St. Mary of Trastevere. When you walk in, to your right, is a statute of what appears to be St. Joseph with the Baby Jesus. Underneath were a bunch of folded papers with notes on them. They were prayers and petitions. My wife suggested that I write something for my Dad. So, I did: “For the repose of the soul of Harold Joseph Beckwith [7] (1930-2015).” Before we left the basilica we went into the gift shop. I noticed that there was a post card with a picture of statue under which I placed my prayer. I picked up the card, pointed to the picture on it, and asked the clerk, “Chi e questo?” She said, “Sant’Antonio di Padua.” I couldn’t believe it.

Frank continues:

What happened to me in the past three weeks has changed my life. I want every single moment from now on to count.

78 Comments (Open | Close)

78 Comments To "The Epistemology of Imagination"

#1 Comment By WillO On March 5, 2015 @ 11:12 pm

He who has ears let him hear.

#2 Comment By Darth Thulhu On March 5, 2015 @ 11:12 pm

Jerry, MH – Secular Misanthropist, and Philip K. Dick wrote:

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

Therefore, emotional qualia are Reality.

Therefore, the wholly-lost-and-now-it’s-back-again experiences of consciousness are Reality.

Therefore, the logical consequences of Gödel’s Theorem in a mathematically-modelled universe are Reality.

Therefore, there are actually countless subjective qualia Truths that cannot be proven, and cannot be made subject to repeatable observations.

Therefore, many of those subjective qualia Truths regarding us and our consciousnesses will continue to endure beyond our deaths.

Humility in the face of the Reality of such gaping eternities would not be out of place. Because such Realities will not stop happening to us, regardless of our contrary desires and beliefs.

#3 Comment By Clare Krishan On March 5, 2015 @ 11:34 pm

I’ll grant you that in the persuasion of eros, my logorheia isn’t fit for purpose ergo non credo. I’m not asking you to serve me tho’ but whether you think science has to serve Truth? Science is not the master of Truth as a property of reality, it’s its servant. Facts are inanimate [arsenic is a mineral] and have no inherent moral weight [so what]. Only rhetoric can present them [arsenic is toxic and makes for an effective rat poison] in a spirit of Truth based on a shared grammar that wills the good of the other [arsenic-containing compounds do not belong in household goods] or present them in a relativistic, corrupted or sectarian way [Regency green is the most desirable color this season for household goods]. To deny as much is ergo non serviam.

Many of us are familiar with the German chemists who made a small fortune manufacturing trench gas as a weapon of mass destruction during WWI, but how many are as familiar with the English chemists who made a small fortune manufacturing copper arsenite for use in domestic goods of mass destruction? See here [8]

“The toxicity of dye made with emerald green was not initially recognized, until the recipe was published in 1822, and “…its poisonous nature was revealed. Manufacturers then changed the recipe, adding other ingredients to lighten the colour, and changing its name accordingly in an effort to disguise its true nature.” “ poisoning consumers until it was banned… in 1960 long after WWI (heck long after WWII).

and to the person calling themself Thursday “If Mohammed appeared in the sky tomorrow” how would we know its him? What visual evidence would we have to go on, seeing as iconoclasm is a firmly held tenet of faith amongst his disciples? No one has a sample of his handwriting even, or archeological record of his earthly abode since his temporal heirs, the Wahabi monarchy is busy blowing them all up in Meccah lest anyone try to use science to question the verities of… well of everything and anything about him historically-critically speaking. The evidence for Jesus is greater than that for Homer and (most) everyone believes the Iliad and Odyssey were penned by a great poet of that name even if we’re not called to believe any of the events or revere the wisdom of any divinities recounted there-in.

#4 Comment By Franklin Evans On March 6, 2015 @ 12:03 am

I’m about to make a very unFranklin-like post. Eamus, do please offer your reactions to it.

There are two distinct types of supernatural experience. One is frightening only, having only those deleterious effects that persons experiencing them bring upon themselves. The other is a direct attack, an intent to injure, from a living source.

We, and I speak for myself and others, have reliable knowledge — sometimes starting as assumptions that are corroborated over time — about both. The former is of nature if not explainable within nature and our current understanding of it. The latter is of nature at its source, and explainable at minimum by that very human characteristic of greed, a desire for power and to wield it over others.

I’ll stop being vague. Ghosts, the extra-sensory perceptions, these are the former type. They are all around us everywhere, and some people are more sensitive to them than others. Circumstances can enhance that sensitivity, especially when strong emotions are associated with them. This offers insight into many stories, including Rod’s about his father and Mr. Beckwith’s story.

The other type is always human in origin. In my world and my perception of it, Evil always needs a human agency; always. I’ve met such people, encountered them “up close and personal” as the cliche goes. The “demon” in every story is a human being, not some fantastical denizen of another plane or dimension.

Eamus, secular vaccination is a thin veneer over a deep and powerful source of energy. Its intrusions into our lives are mitigated more by an excess of noise, that distinctly human miasma of sound the absence of which one notices immediately in an isolated and wild place away from all human artifacts.

Anyway, in my view and my reading of history, the witch-hunt phenomenon is motivated from deep within the human instincts. It will manifest itself no matter what we might do to stop it. A smart and aware witch will see it coming and be elsewhere when it happens. That won’t stop the injury (and deaths) of non-witches, as you cite about the African children.

#5 Comment By dominic1955 On March 6, 2015 @ 12:17 am

James in Ohio,

“These gifts from God are so wonderfully affirming and encouraging. The only bad thing about it is that the effect wears off surprisingly quickly and the world gets hold of you again.”

This is why having more than just feeeeeeeling propping up one’s faith is so important. The way I learned Carmelite and French School spirituality in the seminary and by my own reading, God uses such things to get us started or maybe give us a little boost from time to time when we are backsliding. But these little miracles or wonders are spiritual candy, or training wheels of a sort-this is why their “effect” wears off so quickly. They are beautiful and nice and all but God wants us to progress beyond them. Proper charity in its highest form is not to be found in them, as they are the lowest rung of the ladder, the outermost castle.

It is also because of their nature that their impression does not a convert make infallibly. There are lots of people who see signs and wonders or experience a little grace or miracle and just shrug it off. Even larger ones are easily ignored because they are outglitzed by the pomp of the World.

#6 Comment By Clare Krishan On March 6, 2015 @ 1:08 am

Rombald, amongst his contemporaries Moses was unexceptional, most temporal patrimonies passed down from Bronze-age conqueror to Bronze-age conqueror by vanquishing each other. What is remarkable about his story is that we *know* it all. As a weak. enslaved people what encouraged them to pass down their non-material patrimony? Their perception of transcendent good fortune as an immeasurably precious gift of uncanny rarity and sustained by their fidelity to a process of inculturation across centuries of upheaval down thru the Iron age and into Roman occupation. I’d love to link to a recent lecture by Prof Eric Cline but its not online yet [https://oi.uchicago.edu/article/lecture-eric-cline-1177-bc-year-civilization-collapsed – keep checking the Oriental Instute’s YouTube channel linked (scroll to very bottom of page) meanwhile here’s a brief trailer
for his book 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Consider similar things happened to culture at the collapse of iron age Rome: much of Europe forgot how something as basic as a wheel-thrown pot was made, we resorted to far more ancient bronze-age coil construction vessels instead, and yet we never failed to pass on the scriptures. Why were they so highly prized that man cared to invest in keeping them when it looked like the world as we knew it was coming to an end? In the cast of dramatis personi they saw other weak souls just like themselves who celebrate their unpromising predicaments as “evidence” a fact, a real encounter with iAmWhoAm. Retold in the persuasive rhetoric of an earthly eros, pastoral seasons that return not in sideral synchrony but in metonic mystery. We cannot *know* God unless we will to believe he can be known as agency, in mutual reciprocity: IamBeliefwhoAm IamLovewhoAm IamWisdomwhoAm thus we know because we were first known, we love because we were first loved and so on.

#7 Comment By Eamus Catuli On March 6, 2015 @ 4:57 am


…..the way the mind interacts with the world implies that mind is at least as foundational to the cosmos as matter.

I realize it’s pointless to argue with beliefs like that, but my curiosity is getting the better of me here. I’ve read a summary of Thomas Nagel’s arguments, but this seems even more extreme; in fact it’s a more radical claim than theism itself.

So, simple question: If some huge catastrophe destroyed the earth or wiped out all the life on it — i.e. if there were no longer human minds physically in existence, or even chimp minds or whale minds or grasshopper “minds” — what disturbance would that cause in the rest of the cosmos, and how far would the consequences reach? Would this event be felt somehow in other solar systems? On the other side of the galaxy? In other galaxies? What would be different in or about those very distant places? Would there still be matter and energy? Light? Rocks? Gases? Would they somehow be structured or operate differently than they do now?

Or this: Apart from Young-Earth Creationists, my understanding is that even theists today accept that the universe came into existence before the sun, which came into existence before the earth, which came into existence before living things, which came into existence before human beings and their minds. What was “mind” and where was it during those earlier eons?

I find it easier to believe in (though impossible to explain) the idea a God, who somehow rules the entire cosmos and also existed before and created the human mind — as Christianity teaches — than to say that “mind” in any meaningful sense existed before human beings or would survive their disappearance. Perhaps you’re just using the word “mind” as a synonym for God. Then the claim is more intelligible, but, it seems, also redundant, because we already have a word for God (i.e. “God”). It also seems like a claim that would diminish God, who in the Judeo-Christian understanding is infinitely more and greater than just “mind,” right? (“God is love,” I’ve heard, for example. Do you think otherwise? Or is love just another term for “mind,” or maybe a product of it?)

#8 Comment By Jonathan On March 6, 2015 @ 5:17 am

“You could say that people like this are professional skeptics who can’t let go of the convictions with which they make sense of the world, even when the facts of experience falsify them. And you would be right.”

Actually, no. The consistent skeptic would deny that we can be sure about what “nature” may be, and consequently we have no basis for segregating phenomena in to “natural” and “supernatural” categories.

#9 Comment By Jonathan On March 6, 2015 @ 5:21 am

What Eamus Catuli says is correct.

It is a trivialisation of religious faith to align it with the “sugar pills & magic tricks” world of the modern generic anti-materialists.

#10 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On March 6, 2015 @ 6:50 am

@Eamus Catuli, that was a good post, but I think the witch hunt mentality is a danger even in the secular west. Are you old enough to remember the satanic ritual abuse moral panic of the 1980’s?

#11 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On March 6, 2015 @ 7:53 am

Thursday, +1

A lot of the evidence for God is staring us in the face. We’re too close to notice. The mere fact of consciousness is a lot weirder than any miracle you’ll find in any holy book, and the way the mind interacts with the world implies that mind is at least as foundational to the cosmos as matter.

Materialism is philosophically dead. Materialists have clumsily tried to revamp it through supervenience and the new “Physicalism” brand, but failed, as supervenientism, like its emergentist kin, has shown itselv to be just wordplay, devoid of any explanatory power.
Conscience, free agency and the experience of time cannot be tamed to fit within any form of materialist metaphyisics.
Implicitly, all materialists disbelieve themselves: accepting causal closure would necessarily imply the impossibility of valid knowledge, making nonsense of all of science and philosophy.
The consequence is that we must accept some form or panpsychism or dualism, but this necessarily entails, dear Horatio, that “…There are more things in heaven and earth,…”

#12 Comment By 476 On March 6, 2015 @ 9:05 am

“It seems to me that if you are willing to endorse mystical or supernatural experiences that emerge from a wide variety of religious frameworks in order to multiply the evidence for a non-materialist reality and then retreat from this very ecumenical position to make the case for a narrower Christian, specifically orthodox Christian framework for reality as Rod Dreher does in other posts as well as in his forthcoming book (or so I gather), you have a difficult contradiction to resolve.”

I don’t see the contradiction. Christianity has never claimed that it is the only way to experience the supernatural, only that it is the only way to eternal salvation. I don’t see how experience of the supernatural in say, Hinduism or Buddhism, necessarily invalidates Christianity. The supernatural (both good and evil) is much closer to us and much easier to reach out to than we realize.

The point is that the case for Christianity is not limited to miracles or subjective supernatural experiences. The argument for Christianity is also philosophical and historical.

#13 Comment By Court Merrigan On March 6, 2015 @ 10:27 am

I class myself as a reluctant atheist; “reluctant” because I’d like to believe; an atheist because of the Problem of Evil, mainly.

I agree with some other commentators, Rod, that if an apparition appeared in the sky today and said, “Jesus is not the Son of God, and Mohammed is the true Prophet”, you would find a reason not to believe.

Or how about this – my wife is a cultural Buddhist (as opposed to a Western Buddhist who has adopted the philosophy but not the culture) and believes sincerely and wholeheartedly in ghosts, apparitions, demons, spirits, past lives, future lives, etc. She and every single member of her family, everyone in her village back in Thailand, can recount dozens of experiences which credulous WEsterners class as “mystical” but which the Thais, perhaps wiser in the ways of humility of which Rod writs, accept as part and parcel of being part of a vast universe of which we understand only a small part, and that operates daily on dimensions far beyond our five senses; in short, a Buddhist-inflected (not orthodox, particularly) and animist view that it is the spiritual world that is the true one, and this physical existence a mere passing illusion.

As with you, Rod, my wife and all her relations and fellow villagers (indeed, an entire nation) believe this with as much sincerity as do you. Now I ask, who is correct? Who gets to decide? If it’s a matter of seniority, my wife’s understanding stretches back to a tradition vastly older than Christianity and even the Old Testament. If it’s a matter of precise scripture, you win.

If, however, it is a matter of living tradition, then my wife wins in a landslide, becuase she come comes from an entire culture and country and region in which the spiritual is accepted as part of daily life, and one who believes is thought to be normal, not a bit strange, as perhaps you feel yourself to be.

#14 Comment By Eamus Catuli On March 6, 2015 @ 11:21 am

Franklin, thanks for your comments. I appreciate your commitment to responsible Paganism, if I’m citing you correctly on that.

(Also, I’ve got a comment addressed to “Thursday” that is still awaiting moderation as I write this. It will appear after, but just so there’s no confusion, was written before I saw your latest.)

To clarify, I wasn’t linking vaccination with the supernatural but was using it as an analogy. My point was that modern societies are largely immune from certain diseases because of widespread vaccination, and similarly, they are “immune” from abuses like literal witchcraft trials (albeit not metaphorical “witch” hunts) because of widespread secularization and Entzauberung. If someone nowadays did accuse someone else of witchcraft, and took that complaint to the police or courts, those agencies would not recognize it as legitimate or worth prosecuting because our official culture does not acknowledge witchcraft as real. And if it’s not real, then by definition, no one can be guilty of it. That’s an excellent defense for anyone so accused.

So, extending that analogy: the anti-vaxxers we’ve been hearing about free-ride on the general immunity already present in the community at large. They can opt out from having their kids vaccinated without nearly as much danger as there would otherwise be, because their kids are surrounded by other kids who have been vaccinated and are not likely to be spreading the disease in question. By analogy, I’m suggesting that the benign kind of supernaturalist dabbling that Rod Dreher promotes in this post — this comforting, unthreatening Moralistic Therapeutic Spiritualism, as I think it can fairly be called — is a kind of freeriding, carried out in the confidence that it won’t lead to anyone being prosecuted for witchcraft because the official modern rejection of supernaturalism rules that out a priori. If we lived in a culture that did not rule it out, a culture that officially recognized the possibility of witchcraft, then supernaturalist beliefs would be much scarier and more dangerous, and would almost certainly lead at some point to innocent people being victimized — as happened in the West in earlier times and has happened in recent years in Africa, very often at the instigation of Christian churches and pastors. (Apparently exorcism can be a lucrative business.)

Sorry, that doesn’t really address the points you just asked me to. If I understand correctly, it sounds like you accept the premise that there are evil supernatural forces but are focused on people and what they concretely do (and would urge others not to go witch-hunting because, at best, they’ll find the witches too elusive to be caught). I guess as long as we’re confining ourselves to demonstrable bad acts that can be proven from normal, non-supernatural evidence of the kinds already relied on in our secular courts, then it doesn’t much matter whether we also, further, assign those acts to demonic agencies or whatever. If someone wants to argue that the Green River Killer was the human agent of supernatural evil, that’s fine as long as the Green River Killer is still pursued through every available method of normal police investigation, as long as the evidence presented against him is visible to all and not itself occult, and as long as the sentence eventually meted out is the same as it would be for a comparable non-demonic serial killer. (Although really, it should be somewhat milder, right, because being demon-possessed would seem to count as a mitigating circumstance?)

Put another way, I’m not concerned about supernaturalist beliefs that don’t have real-world consequences, or that have only the kinds of anodyne consequences the original post here describes — people feeling the warm glow of the presence of their late, beloved grandpapas. I’m very concerned, though, about anything that would lead to the victimizing of people, and I think supernaturalist beliefs have a long history of doing that. Our main and best defense against that potential is living in a society that, at least officially, is “unmagicked” and does not believe in ghosts.

#15 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On March 6, 2015 @ 11:22 am

@Darth Thulhu, I’m not concerned about subtle possible squishy stuff that might be. I care about Ryleigh rising from beneath the waves, a plague of frogs and blood, or Uncle Chucky laying waste to a city with his psionic helmet.

#16 Comment By Eamus Catuli On March 6, 2015 @ 11:37 am

MH – Secular Misanthropist, I do indeed remember the satanic ritual abuse panic. It was a very sorry chapter in American history. I guess my comment about it is that it points up just how serious these dangers are. In those cases, the police and courts didn’t literally accept the premise that Satan exists, and did not credit testimony received from occult sources (visions, visitations, premonitions, dreams, etc.). And even so, things were bad enough: they accepted that there were innumerable Satanists on the loose and operating with impunity, and they made serious mistakes in the handling of evidence and testimony, allowing juries to convict and send people to prison based on the word of children who described having been thrown to sharks or magically transported to the moon. Imagine how much worse things would be if the authorities took seriously the kinds of claims they once did — that the baby was sick because the Widow Jones put a curse on it, which we know because we saw her in a dream conversing with demons in the woods. Also, she has a birthmark.

So the dangers are clearly still there. I don’t see how you can go telling people that spirits are making good things happen in our midst without opening the door to the flip-side belief that our problems are caused by evil spirits, and that people we dislike or find suspect might well be their human agents.

#17 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On March 6, 2015 @ 11:44 am

Darth Thulhu said at 10:57 pm:

3b) If you don’t successfully repeat it according to their every whim, see the treatment of any reviled saint, or (more mildly) see MH – Secular Misanthropist’s posts throughout this thread. Videos will be accused of being faked and dismissed. Weird anomalies will be waved away and dismissed as “not significant”. Your life and livelihood and reputation will be actively stripped from you.

Posts plural throughout this thread!?

When you wrote that I had one post saying a malfunctioning transistor radio hardly seemed all that impressive. That’s really mild criticism and somehow equal to the other things you’re mentioning?

I find it plain weird that theists conflate claims of people physically coming back from the dead (Lazarus) with transistor radios. Seriously, one would be amazing, the other is ambiguous at best.

#18 Comment By Debbie On March 6, 2015 @ 12:04 pm

Court Merrigan,

This is a bit off topic, but I’ve always wanted to ask an athiest this. You say you can’t believe because of the problem of evil. What about the problem of the good and beautiful? If the universe is just random chance, why is there anything good and beautiful? Why do we care about goodness? It should be just dandy that people cheat me and steal from me. Justice is just an artificial construction of society, so there is no problem of evil. It is just people’s perception that it is evil. How can evil really exist in an impersonal universe? Therefore, why should we resist groups like ISIS? Likewise, cow manure is just as beautiful as a rose in an impersonal universe. Why not frame a picture of cow manure and put it on your wall? (Some art museums have done the equivalent of this, but most people have objections to this.) Why do people flock to “beautiful” locations to restore their spirit? In an impersonal universe, wouldn’t a visit to the local slough be just as good?

#19 Comment By Court Merrigan On March 6, 2015 @ 12:37 pm

Hi Debbie,

I think both Christianity (or theism more broadly) as well as secularism can point to pretty good reasons why, say, ISIS beheadings are evil: they cause quantifiable suffering, to the victims, their families, and so on. The universe can be entirely impersonal and that form of evil remains evil (i.e., the kind that humans inflict upon another), whether you believe in the divine or not.

I’ve seen that sort of evil up close. You know it when you see it, whatever you believe in.

The problem for me is, I can’t see how an all-knowing, all-loving God, all-powerful God can permit evil. And not just the kind we inflict on each other: what about famines? Birth defects? Tsunamis? Smallpox and cancer? Etc. As Hume has it, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” I can’t answer these questions.

Yes, grace and redemption and mystery, but just when I feel the edges of faith creep in, I think of the starving child and the vulture, and I just … can’t. No amount of fancy theological footwork can explain this picture. [10]

(Sorry, I don’t know how to make hyperlinks).

Interestingly, the folkish Buddhism of my wife has rather concrete answers to the Problem of Evil, but you’d have to accept the whole cosmology that comes along with it (including but not limited to reincarnation, tree spirits, ghosts, demons, black & white magic, etc etc etc), and I’m not much able to do that, either.

Maybe in my next life?

#20 Comment By ratnerstar On March 6, 2015 @ 1:10 pm

A lot of the evidence for God is staring us in the face. We’re too close to notice. The mere fact of consciousness is a lot weirder than any miracle you’ll find in any holy book …

You’re right, consciousness is weird. And I agree that it’s probably the biggest thorn in materialism’s side. I lean toward materialism as being the metaphysical structure most likely to be true, but the problem of consciousness is a still a big blank spot. A lot of interesting work has been done on it, but nothing that really gives a fully satisfactory accounting of how something like consciousness arises from purely materialistic matter.

But that sword cuts both ways. Consciousness presents problems for materialism, but it’s not exactly hanging out nicely in the non-materialist camp either. As anyone who has taken LSD or read a book by Oliver Sacks can tell you, we can affect consciousness in profound ways through purely materialistic means. If you think there must be something beyond the brain, then you must also have an account of how that something impacts and is impacted by the brain. Dualists have not had any more success with this than materialists have had with consciousness — in fact, I don’t see them really grappling with it seriously, although that could be because I don’t follow the discussion closely enough.

#21 Comment By ratnerstar On March 6, 2015 @ 1:18 pm

As far as proofs go, I have to disagree with Darth Thulu and many other here about how hard it would be to convince people. I think if I were omnipotent, I could convince virtually everyone, even without resorting to “tricks” like altering their brains. Would the next generation be more skeptical? Perhaps, but presumably my omnipotence isn’t time-bounded, so I could turn the rivers into blood or move a mountain or transform Keanu Reeves into a good actor or whatever for them too.

#22 Comment By Ken On March 6, 2015 @ 3:25 pm


“I don’t see the contradiction. Christianity has never claimed that it is the only way to experience the supernatural, only that it is the only way to eternal salvation. I don’t see how experience of the supernatural in say, Hinduism or Buddhism, necessarily invalidates Christianity. The supernatural (both good and evil) is much closer to us and much easier to reach out to than we realize.”

You are going to have to further educate me here. My understanding is that Christianity’s claim to be the sole path to salvation does make assumptions that would be hard to reconcile with other religions. Eternal salvation assumes that human beings have a soul that is their essence, that there is a God (only one) who is the agent of their salvation, that there are non-material realms in which the soul will reside after death, and that other accounts of the fate of the soul/self after death (Epicurean extinction, Hindu reincarnation) are emphatically not true. I don’t see how one could embrace neo-paganism or Buddhism without negating several of Christianity’s core assertions.

“The point is that the case for Christianity is not limited to miracles or subjective supernatural experiences. The argument for Christianity is also philosophical and historical.”

I can imagine that Christians get tired of answering questions about the supernatural from anti-theists when the heart of the religion for them lies in its philosophy and the way of life it demands. But if the supernatural were beside the point, why this post, and why are we having this conversation?

#23 Comment By Peter On March 6, 2015 @ 5:58 pm


Can someone explain to me the theological justification of why He can’t or won’t or shouldn’t perform some major miracles for all to observe?

Probably not, but I’ll take a rough stab at it.

Normative Christian anthropology affirms that God created man “in His own image” and it was “very good”. That is, with sovereignty if not freedom, and free will, if not agency. I dare say that here God created a weight He could not (or would not) lift. A loving God will not violate this freedom through coercion by signs nor discursive, intelligible constructs.

Thus, it is left to the will, or rather a particular faculty of the will, to believe.

#24 Comment By ratnerstar On March 6, 2015 @ 8:02 pm

Normative Christian anthropology affirms that God created man “in His own image” and it was “very good”. That is, with sovereignty if not freedom, and free will, if not agency. I dare say that here God created a weight He could not (or would not) lift. A loving God will not violate this freedom through coercion by signs nor discursive, intelligible constructs.

Thus, it is left to the will, or rather a particular faculty of the will, to believe.

This is the explanation I generally hear, but it doesn’t sit well with me, for two reasons.

1) Most, or at least many, Christians believe God does intervene in their lives, sometimes physically but more often in intangible ways. Many people believe they have a personal relationship with Jesus, with whom they can converse. Why do these things not violate God’s rule against coercion?

2) More importantly, how are direct signs coercion at all? It’s certainly not how we usually define coercion. If I want people to, say, vote for me for President (I’m still weighing whether I want to throw my hat in), I go around telling them I’m running and what I stand for. That doesn’t coerce them to vote for me, it just allows them to make an informed choice.

If God shows Himself to me in some way — speaking from a burning bush — I can still choose not to worship Him. My freedom is preserved, just as it was preserved for Moses and for Jesus’s disciples.

#25 Comment By Another Matt On March 6, 2015 @ 9:27 pm

Thus, it is left to the will, or rather a particular faculty of the will, to believe.

This is like saying that if I try really hard I can believe that I have four hands.

#26 Comment By Peter On March 6, 2015 @ 10:31 pm

The normative Christian belief is that God is the creator of all things, visible and invisible. Doesn’t that encompass more than mere intercession? Another normative Christian belief is that Jesus = person = Truth. I think that is what is meant by ‘personal’ relationship, rather than having a cosmic buddy. This relationship is expressed in love between the lover and the beloved in cooperation (synergy). This is a doctrine upheld by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Methodist, among others.

God knows the condition of each person’s heart. I feel safe in saying that is a Christian conviction. So for every subjective personal or historic context, God knows the threshold for “coercion” and will out of love, not rules, not violate one’s freedom.

Jonathan Sacks has suggested theEntzauberungof Max Weber has its roots in Genesis 1. With the litany of “and God said” came the demystification of the glories of creation – a philosophical disenchantment and rational contextualization of the created order.

For some, miracles can pierce a hard calculating mode of being, for some fasting and praying, for some the ‘father thing’. We like to say that God will save all those who can be saved.

#27 Comment By Moone Boy On March 7, 2015 @ 4:52 am

It’s funny because I now have a much greater respect for Shermer; because despite his experience seeming to conflict with his notion of reality, he did _not_ dismiss it. And more than that, he is willing to discuss it, and to allow that he cannot explain it (his ideas of reality are incomplete), while still holding to his (materialist) convictions.

That’s the mark of a fine intellect.

What’s also interesting is that your own intellect is marked in a similar way, Mr. Dreher, by your own acknowledgement that you have no explanation (theologically in your case) for a similar experience, which you also refuse to dismiss.

You’re two of a kind, believe it or not.

#28 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On March 7, 2015 @ 6:46 am

ratnerstar said:

…or transform Keanu Reeves into a good actor or whatever for them too.

Hey, let’s not get crazy here. Some things are just plain impossible, even if you are all powerful and omnipresent. Try for something simpler, like a religious text that every reader agrees on its meaning.

#29 Comment By RandyW On March 7, 2015 @ 8:14 am

How, exactly, does one distinguish supposed “evidence” of the supernatural from an anomaly or a phenomenon that is merely very unlikely or otherwise unexpected? Please, be specific.

#30 Comment By Franklin Evans On March 7, 2015 @ 10:37 am

Eamus, you made an erudite effort to respond to my post, and while you may not believe it to be direct, I do. I wasn’t looking for debate as much as your further perspective on it.

That’s the crux of the dilemma, and your implied analogy with Moralistic Therapeutic Spiritualism is very appropriate. My view, having no contradicting evidence in my lifetime, is that this “realm” of phenomena is very much our reality. Humans have spent millenia in their separate geographies and cultures dealing with this reality, and there is a unifying common “theme”: it’s frightening, it’s unexplainable by any mundane standard, and it must be dealt with if one is to remain sane.

I connect it with human instinct. We are creatures of patterns and pattern recognition. Knowing what’s there or what’s coming is a survival trait. Being surprised is potentially fatal.

That basic premise drives the rest, in my very much not humble opinion. 😀

I call my spiritual path shamanic. It’s very important to qualify that with I do not call myself a shaman. The distinction is in what I do vs. for whom or with whom I do it. Shamans were and are the intermediaries of their people. It’s their job (and training) to face the unknowns and bring some minimal order to them, to satisfy that instinct and mitigate the fear it generates.

I call myself an agent, not an intermediary. I can and do serve in that fashion, not to bring that order, but to act on behalf of those who are threatened or injured by the unknowable… a key choice of word there, because while I don’t claim insight into the unknown, I do claim practical knowledge sufficient to face it without the fear.

Evil’s agency is on that very same level. People perpetrate evil. It is not an entity in and of itself. I and others step forward to be the balancing agents against them.

It seems rather glib, even to me, and straight out of some fantasy story (one I always recommend reading is the Jim Butcher series “The Dresden Files”). That doesn’t mean that such a Story is without merit or a solid founding in our reality. It gives our mundane attempts to understand it all a voice.

#31 Comment By Franklin Evans On March 7, 2015 @ 10:47 am

General comment: Christianity’s strength is in its consistent and direct service to its believers, arming them as best as it is possible against those unknowns and the fears they generate. Christianity’s weakness is in its dogmatic insistence that its service is the only true one, that other religions and beliefs are at best mistaken, at worst the direct source and cause of the fears.

One cannot fight a fear by replacing it with another fear. That is my objection to and rejection of dogma.

#32 Comment By Eamus Catuli On March 7, 2015 @ 7:01 pm

Franklin, I agree, a shamanistic function of some kind is crucial, and I think the fact that it’s missing from the original post is part of what seemed amiss about it.

Beyond that, I’m too tired at the moment to discuss this intelligently — maybe on another thread — but will just say that if I find myself migrating toward Paganism at some point, I will seek you out as my expert guide.