Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Is Sister Joan (and All Others Who Believe in God) Delusional?

Why are people who show the most evidence of firmly believing in and being committed to God not taken more seriously by atheists?

There are many noted people who made significant life changes because of what they resolutely believed was direct experience of God.

Within the Christian tradition, a hastily made “top 10” list would include people such as:
· ** Hildegard of Bingen (from 1141)
· ** Francis of Assisi (from 1205)
· ** Julian of Norwich (from 1373)
· ** Ignatius of Loyola (from 1521)
· ** Teresa of Avila (from 1527)
· ** George Fox (from 1643)
· ** Blaise Pascal (from 1654)
· ** John Wesley (from 1738)
· ** C. S. Lewis (from 1929)
· ** Thomas Merton (from 1941)
  --and many others lesser-known, but perhaps no less changed.

But people such as these are dismissed as superstitious, irrational, or even delusional by those who are ardent atheists—such as Jerry A. Coyne.

Coyne (b. 1949) is a professor of biology at the University of Chicago. His book Why Evolution Is True was on the “Best Sellers” list of the New York Times in 2009. In May of this year his new book, Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, was published.

Back in 2006, Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion was a bestselling book. In it the British biologist argued that belief in a personal God qualifies as a delusion, which he defines as a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence.

Dawkins highly recommends Coyne’s book (found here):
The distinguished geneticist Jerry Coyne trains his formidable intellectual firepower on religious faith, and it’s hard to see how any reasonable person can resist the conclusions of his superbly argued book. Though religion will live on in the minds of the unlettered, in educated circles faith is entering its death throes.
But has Coyne been adequately “scientific” in his research? He considers many religious fundamentalists and examples from splinter religious groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientology. But he doesn’t consider people of deep faith based on direct experience of God, such as the people in the list above—or such as Joan Chittister.

This month I have been reading some of Chittister’s writings, especially her superlative Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir (2004). Sister Joan (yes, she is a Catholic nun, born in 1936), has struggled through life questioning dogmatism and institutional religion (Catholicism).

But without question, she is a woman of unflagging faith in God. A biography of Sr. Joan, by Tom Roberts, will be published tomorrow, October 1. Its title: Joan Chittister: Her Journey From Certainty to Faith. 
And Sister Joan certainly has been, and is, a part of “educated circles.” She has a Ph.D. (from Penn State University), is the author of over 50 books, and has been a research associate at Cambridge University.

Coyne doesn’t consider people like her to be worthy dialogue partners, though. He declares that “anything useful will come from a monologue—one in which science does all the talking and religion the listening” (p. 260).

And while he doesn’t say so explicitly, Coyne, like Dawkins, seems to think that Sr. Joan, and all others of us who believe in God, are delusional because of our faith in God, which cannot be adequately authenticated by scientific evidence.

But why does Coyne, or any other militant atheist, have the right to make a judgment about the psychological condition of Sister Joan—or of anyone who claims to have personal and meaningful experience of God?

Why should she have the richness of her experience denigrated by the paucity of his experience?


  1. I don't have anything against atheists, per se; I even think it's good for us to have atheists. And insofar as they're rejecting the popular and traditional "orthodox" doctrines about God with all their obvious contradictions and anthropomorphisms, the atheists are right. However, to make such astounding metaphysical claims based on a scientific perspective is profoundly unscientific. To appropriate, in the name of science, a materialist-purposeless metaphysics is to turn the pragmatic and naturalistic perspective of science into a faith itself, and is itself beyond scientific proof. It is the mirror image of fundamentalism, or so it seems to me.

    All that being said, however, it is important that our theologies be compatible with scientific findings. It is bizarre and irresponsible to reject evolution, human influence on climate change, etc. in the name of some blind faith or literal doctrine of biblical teachings.

    1. Anton, I was hoping you would respond to this blog article with your usual perceptive comments, and I was not disappointed.

      What you wrote in the second paragraph is especially important, I think. Much of Coyne's criticism of religion / belief in God is due to religionists denying evolution and taking other positions in disagreement with contemporary scientific knowledge.

  2. Thanks, Anton. An important response, especially in your second paragraph. I agree. I would add my mild perplexity at the question the blog raises about "being taken seriously." What does it mean to be taken seriously? The danger in some answers to that question seem to me to derive from the presumption that "taken seriously" means receiving notoriety (interesting that the examples cited are in some sense traditional celebrities of Christianity). If we bear in mind the NT metaphor of presence as leavening, something invisible yet vital, I think we not only avoid such presumptuous ideas as notoriety, and leave the door open (in this country anyway, where religion is constitutionally protected) for religious fold to make their case. They make their case through their contributions to the good of the whole through their individual lives, their participation in community at all levels, their original ideas, and so on.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Milton; it is always good to hear from you.

    Perhaps I could have used a better expression, but by "being taken seriously" I meant, among other things, being considered worthy dialogue partners. But as you saw from the Coyne quote, he does not think there is anything to be gained by dialogue; he wants only monologue with scientists doing all the talking. (Fortunately, this is not the position of most atheists.)

    It is true that the examples I gave were primarily "traditional celebrities," but they are the ones best known--and mostly for good reason. But Coyne didn't consider people like them in his sweeping rejection of all people of religious faith as not being worth listening to and "taken seriously" in terms of considering them as possible dialogue partners.

    Most of the religionists, Christian or other, who Coyne mentions people like Anton referred to, who deserve to be criticized. But my point is that there are many, such as the list I gave of the great people of faith in past times or people like Sister Joan in the present, who deserve greater consideration even by atheists.

    But Coyne doesn't make any mention of people like them--and neither does he seem to pay any attention to Christians making "their case" by how they live and contribute to society now. They are all written off as being delusional (to use Dawkins's term) and as being unworthy of serious consideration because they adhere to an "unscientific" faith.

  4. I haven't read any of the Dawkins' or Coyne's works. Don't think I will, Like Anton, I respect the atheist rejection of much of so called orthodoxy. I don't believe in that god either. But Coyne's statement regarding a monologue in which science does all the talking and religion just listens? What can I say of that, except that it is profoundly arrogant. I think it's an arrogance well described by the Psalmist: "The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God."


    1. The main reason I read books like Dawkins's and Coyne's is because I have friends who not only read them but largely agree with them. I want to know what they are thinking and why in order to have dialogue with them. I want to take their atheism seriously.

      But I also want them to return the favor.

    2. I did not intend to be critical of those who read Coyne, Dawkins, et al. It's just that I don't want to spend my time with them. I'd rather read books that help me deal with a narrow theism. That's more the environment that I live in.

  5. Good posting, with which I certainly agree. And it is interesting as a thought experiment to think of the way I (we?) view strong believers in UFOs (for instance) and realize that's the way atheists tend to view people of faith.

    1. Thanks, Keith, for commenting and for raising an interesting "thought experiment."

      I think you are right in suggesting that people like Coyle see people who believe in God as similar to the way most of us view "strong believers in UFOs." That is the reason there is no room for dialogue in their way of thinking: the view of religionists is not worth taking seriously.

      But if there were a history of strong UFO believers that was similar to the list of Christian believers in God that I gave, if there were contemporary believers in UFOs that were of the stature of people like Sister Joan--or of 20th century people like Dorothy Day, MLK, and Thomas Merton (again) whom the Pope mentioned in his address to the Congress, if the UFO believers were among the leading advocates for peace and justice in the world, then perhaps I (we?) would take them more seriously and consider their claims more thoroughly.

  6. An interesting topic. There seem to be variations to atheistic belief. There is one friendly group who "don't believe in religion" and just live life without a relational god or belief. I have met both Europeans and Americans who fall into this group. They are not opposed to a god. I have 3 friends in that category who were very surprised when they encountered Christ personally for the first time - a life-changing event. I have also encountered the militant atheists, who have a very devout belief system which must exclude anything outside a naturalistic realm. In a recent conversation with my son, he was exploring the realm of the mystics and "mentally ill" who perceive other "dimensions" as a rationale possibility to which many miss, but in which some believe - his quantum approach allows for up to at least 11 dimensions, including several natural dimensions which many miss in their observations. And of course there are those who practice religion as a matter of culture or education, but have no real experience. Each variant is fascinating. Even UFO's, Keith.

  7. But as for me, I continue to probe the depths of Christian orthodoxy, including its mystical aspects, and the wonder of creation. An amazing sojourn into the spiritual which I have found to be very real.

  8. My Sunday School class recently completed reading "The Fifth Dimension" by John Hick (1999). He lead us through various religions and mystics looking for an understanding of the scope and role of mystical experiences. He was trying to show that something real was behind the experiences, even as he was also laying criteria for distinguishing between true experiences and what he calls "the dark side of cults, the dark side of great religions." He even has two chapters on Julian of Norwich.

    He lost me on how he thought he was finding a true metaphysical foundation under it all, but taken at the experience level, I think he made an important point. We only have limited sensory and cognitive information about the universe around us. One part of that limited information takes the form of mystical experiences. These experiences are not part of our normal five senses, but are related to a number of "common sense" experiences that inform our lives with everything from balance to time to empathy to rhythm. We have to learn how to make best use of these intuitive senses, and that is what I gather from Hick's book about mystical experiences. Rather than worrying about whether they have metaphysical reality, we ought to be training ourselves to better absorb what lessons these experiences are offering us.

    Sometimes our intuitions of various sorts provide us with valuable, even life-saving information. Sometimes our intuitions lead us astray. Just as we respect a sharp knife edge, and gasp at a great height, so we should respect mystical experiences, both our own, and of others. Still, we should critically review what they mean, and what they can teach us. Neither rejecting the mystical out of hand, nor swallowing it whole, is a productive way to approach the subject.

    It does amaze me that atheists who are so quick to assert everything we are is the result of 3.5 billion years of evolution are so quick to dismiss mystical experiences as a delusion. Even as the police are telling us that when you feel uncomfortable, you should trust your intuitions and try to get yourself to a safe place. Atheists are proud that Aristotle proclaimed, "Man is the rational animal." Rarely do they mention that his master Plato, writing in "Timaeus" wrote, "Man is a religious animal." Of course, even Hick did not seem to get all of this, as he writes, "It is the anthropologist R. R. Maret who first suggested that homo sapiens could better be called homo religiosus." OK, Aristotle and and Plato did not know Latin, but I think they were debating the same thing a very long time ago! Personally, a big part of the reason I believe in religion is exactly because I believe in 3.5 billion years of evolution, and in what anthropologists tell about virtually every society on earth both today and in the known past. The first clear sign of homo sapiens as of what I read a while back was the discovery of 75,000 year-old tools with "religious" engravings on them. Religion is just what we do. In a sense, atheists are like nudists, if you try real hard you can live without clothes, and you can live without God. I just wonder why.

    1. Well put, Craig.

    2. Thanks, Craig, for you usual erudite comments.

      I don't think Coyne and the "militant" atheists would be impressed, though. They would agree that humans have been religious throughout the vast sweep of history. But now we live in a scientific age, and modern science is, well, modern. In the light of the "factual" knowledge we have now, much of the pre-scientific interpretation of the world, including religious views, have now been superseded.

      Back in 1927 Freud wrote "The Future of an Illusion," in which, as you know, he said that religion was an illusion being replaced by science. It seems to me that what we believers have to do now is to show how faith in God can be seen as legitimate in a scientific age.

  9. Local Thinking Friend David Nelson wrote,

    "I don't read many books by atheists so can't respond from that perspective, but from my life perspective I will respond. The free thinkers, atheists, and other non- theists I know are thoughtful and non judgmental. You know many of these folks as well. I support respectful conversations where each person can be heard and can listen. In my life I have grown more through conversations with people whose opinions differ widely from my own."

    1. Thanks, David, for your comment.

      Yes, I have known many thoughtful and non-judgmental atheists. Quite a few of my friends and colleagues in Japan fit in that category. And certainly I, also, "support respectful conversations where each person can be heard and can listen."

      But that is one of the main things I have against Jerry Coyne. He is not willing, according to what he has written, to engage in such dialogue with people of faith.

  10. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson again makes a brief, but important, comment:

    "A good question, Leroy. Coyne’s effort to polarize science and faith matches fundamentalists’ effort to do the same. Perhaps Christian history gives enough examples of the debate over the relationship between faith and science simply to say, 'Ho hum!'”

    1. Thanks, Dr. Hinson, for your comment.

      Anton Jacobs said in his comments that Coyne's is "the mirror image of fundamentalism," which is similar to what you are saying, I think. But I prefer to say that Coyne's writing is a good example of secular (or scientific) fundamentalism, which perhaps is mainly in response to Christian fundamentalism.

  11. And then there are these substantial comments just sent by Thinking Friend Eric Dollard:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your interesting comments.

    "Although just exactly what is meant by the terms 'delusional,' 'existence,' or 'God' is difficult, I do not generally regard either theists or atheists to be delusional. Some of them, however, may hold certain beliefs I would consider delusional.

    "Unfortunately, militancy is found among both the religious and the nonreligious and I generally reject it. Dr. Coyne certainly has the right, and perhaps the responsibility, to stand up for his beliefs, but he should not ordinarily question the sanity of those with different beliefs.

    "I cannot address the 'richness' of Sister Joan's experiences or the 'paucity' of those of Dr. Coyne. Mysticism, which some people claim to be the ultimate experience of God, can be experienced by nontheists such as Buddhists, or even by Dr Coyne if he were inclined to pursue it. (I do not know if Sister Joan is a mystic.) Although some mystics may be delusional, mysticism is not in itself delusional.

    "As for being a worthy person with whom to have a dialogue, I for one would love to have a conversation with Sister Joan. My concern is whether or not I am a worthy person for her."

  12. On Oct. 1 Eric Dollard send another email with pertinent comments:

    "After I sent my earlier email today, I received in the mail a catalog from the Oxford University Press. It included a book entitled, "The Evolution of Atheism" by Stephen LeDrew at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. The preview says that Stephen LeDrew 'argues that militant atheists have more in common with religious fundamentalists than they would care to admit.' I believe this assessment is correct.

    "Militant atheists fail to see the complexity and nuance in religious traditions and practice. Yes, some religious beliefs and practices are (in my view) absurd, but there are also very sophisticated spiritual traditions in all of the major faiths. It would be exceedingly unwise to simply write them off."

    1. Thanks for sending this, Eric. I hadn't yet heard of LeDrew's book. I agree with his words that you quoted--and with your comments.