Howardism Musings from my Awakening Dementia
My collected thoughts flamed by hubris
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Does this make you agnatstic when defining your flight of belief? :-) Keep thinking, sipping and spilling the thoughts…

—Pete Marzolf

Am I a Nat?

In the April 9, 2007 issue, Newsweek published a debate between Rick Warren, a Californian pastor, and Sam Harris, an author on atheism, called The God Debate (see a archived copy here). In it, Warren asks, "Why isn't atheism [and he could have said, agnostics] more appealing if it's supposedly the most intellectually honest?"

To which, Harris responded, "Frankly, it has a terrible PR campaign."

While it is funny, it has an element of truth to it. Warren pushed the issue and Harris explained:

It is right next to child molester as something you don't want to be. But that is a product, I would argue, of what religious people tell one another about atheism.

One important strategy in warfare is to dehumanize the opposition, and to not only paint them as stereotypes and caricatures, but to give them a label. It helps if the label is degrading, but that often doesn't matter. People on both sides of the "God Debate" have been guilty of perpetrating (and living down to) such characterizations.

In 2003, Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert came up with an idea to give a more positive label for atheists and their friends, calling them brights. The goal was to help overcome the preconceived notions of immorality and intolerance "without casting that world-view as a negative response to religion." It became famous once Richard Dawkins began pushing it as a meme.

Well, it certainly backfired, since even such a label as bright comes across as pretentious, and essentially both sides failed to embrace it.

In philosophy we already have a term for those whose approach to gaining knowledge limits itself to natural, physical, and material explanations without the need for the supernatural. It is called naturalism or naturalistic. So why not just use that term?

While it may be accurate, most people assume that it refers to someone who enjoys the great outdoors or they are confused with naturism. Granted, such a confusion could make the monthly meetings a bit more interesting. But the biggest problem with the term is that it lacks a bit of pizazz. So, may I suggest using the term, Nat.

I personally find the term much more positive since it doesn't define itself by what it isn't… like atheism is defined as "not a theist".

Of course the downside to this term may show up when speaking about it, as people may mistake the term for gnat‡"Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel." --Matt 23:24 … an obnoxious little fly. However, this may help popularize the term as well.;-)

So now I want to pose the question, Am I a Nat?

As I gaze around the universe searching for knowledge, I fully expect that unknown answers will have natural explanations. This perspective comes from a long history of ideas once attributed to the supernatural becoming understood to having purely natural causes. But this is just expectation, and until we know otherwise, I'll just reserve judgment.

However, I like to think of myself as rational. That is, by applying Occam's Razor, I prefer the easy and logical answers. Of course, when looking at the Really Big Questions, we just don't know the answers, and the theories and models we propose are often pretty complicated. (Can you say string theory? I'm sure you can, but can you count all of those dimensions?)

What about the Search for Meaning?

Personally, I feel I have great meaning and purpose for my life, however, this purpose is not due to any need for a supernatural influence. I have written a few essays††See Meaning, Quality and Determinism and Meaningless Evolution on how meaning should be personal and becomes richer as our purpose is discovered and internalized.

Elsewhere, Sam Harris has noted (see this copy) that relationships may be dearer, more cherished and appreciated when viewed as not lasting forever:

…religious people often worry that life is meaningless and imagine that it can only be redeemed by the promise of eternal happiness beyond the grave. [We] tend to be quite sure that life is precious. Life is imbued with meaning by being really and fully lived. Our relationships with those we love are meaningful now; they need not last forever to be made so. [We] tend to find this fear of meaninglessness-- well, meaningless.

What about Spiritual Experiences?

Here is the question that really intrigues me… does taking a naturalistic outlook preclude one from spiritual experiences? For the majority of people a spiritual experience is defined as an experience of the divine, and might as well be translated as "supernatural experience".

But if by spiritual, one means something from the core of our being, then love, passion, ecstasy and other emotionally-charged insights into our personal meaning and place in the universe, is certainly not beyond the bounds of a Nat.

Of course, the motive and explanation of such experiences is what defines a Nat, but does relying on non-supernatural causes cheapen the experience or lessen its power to transform our lives? For me, it has actually been the opposite, for when I think over my spiritual experiences, I am still filled with curiosity and wonder.

The fact that my daughter shares almost all of her genes with a chimpanzee does not make me love or value her less. The fact that a series of chemical and electrical reactions in the brain of my son is the trigger of his affection does not make his hugs any less sweet.

So, yes, I am a Nat. And my life has never been so rich or blessed.

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