Letter from Mark van Steenwyk V

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 17, 2010 in Guest Post

Below is Mark van Steenwyk’s fifth letter to me. See the index of all our letters so far, here. Because we’ve each written 5 letters now, this is the end of our public letter exchange. I’d like to thank Mark for his participation.

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Dear Luke,

There’s been a long gap in our correspondence! Nevertheless, since you’re still an atheist and I’m still a committed devotee of Jesus Christ, all is well; I feel confident I can pick up where we left off.

You asked me, in your last letter, to answer some of my own questions. I shall… and I’ll add some responses to your own answers:

How do we know the best “path” towards utopia? Is anarchism the best “system” to achieve this? Or is there a better approach? How do we get from here to there?

It is no surprise that I think “anarchism” is perhaps the best path towards human liberation. By “anarchism” I don’t mean “blowing shit up” but rather recognizing that since things like hierarchies, collective violence, and general domination are problems that we need to work to dismantle, we should seek ways of organizing as humans that don’t encourage hierarchies, violence, or domination.

But getting there is the big challenge. It always is the big challenge. And, since I think human beings have inherited so many bad ways of thinking, I often lose hope that we can ever get beyond our world’s current crises.

I don’t believe in the “myth of progress.” I don’t think things will get better if left to continue as they are. Things are getting worse. Perhaps this sense of despair factors into my belief in God. Maybe my existential hopelessness births an irrational hope within me.

But I’m not so certain. Beauty and mystery bubble up from the ugliest of places. And this beauty and mystery, I believe, are gifts of God. If we listen to the deep truths groaning out of the earth – if we are attentive to the beauty in every human being, I think we can begin to create liberated spaces.

One need not believe in God to create this. But I do believe folks need to be mystics. A mystical atheism trumps, I believe, the cold belief of the fundamentalist every time.

A mystic is one who connects directly with ultimate reality… spiritual truth… God. Such a posture is necessary to believe and sacrifice what is for what can be. It takes faith to seek a better world. Fundamentalists (either theist or atheists) don’t have faith. They rigidly grip certainty until all life has been squeezed out.

Ultimately, the reason I stubbornly embrace Jesus has little to do with a logical worldview. I don’t cling to propositions the way a fundamentalist does. My convictions evolve and change. My way of seeing the world shifts. But through it all, the beauty of this man who sacrificed his life for the Kingdom of God compels me. His vision of a new humanity caused him to not only die for a cause, but to die for a cause when he could have killed to force his vision upon the world. His vision has seeped into my imagination. I have experienced him – deeply and truly – in the presence of failure and brokenness.

Why do I gush sentimentally like this? Because, I believe that the path to human liberation doesn’t lie in the scientific method per se… it doesn’t lie in trusting in human progress. It doesn’t lie in better medicine or longer lives. Rather, it lies in seeing the divine – whatever that may be – in the vulnerable. It lies in building our communities around a refusal to subjugate or subordinate the vulnerable. In a way, I believe that when we do such we subjugate God.

And I don’t believe that such an insight can ever come purely through reason. An atheist perspective that doesn’t recognize some sort of “deeper” reality, it seems to me, would call for the dismissal of the weak to strengthen the many. That is why, it seems to me, that every good atheist needs to be something of a mystic.

- Mark

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharkey July 17, 2010 at 5:21 am

It sounds like Mark would be happier as a Sufi Muslim rather than an ill-defined subjugated Christian.

I also have problems understanding how a good atheist should have an intimate connection with God; logical consistency is not a requirement for mysticism, obviously.

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Toby July 17, 2010 at 5:51 am

While it was nice of Mark to exchange ideas with you, I find his thoughts to be unusual and somewhat lacking in being responsible to logic. For example, the world is getting worse is a popular Christian thought, but in what measures? Steven Pinker, PhD of MIT, put together a great project showing we are becoming much less violent. IQ has steadily been increasing in the US at the rate of 3 points per decade for the past 4 or 5 decades. Technology is rapidly increasing, thus resulting in medical advancements, substantially longer lives, more abundant and nutrishious food, etc. Christians often try to take credit for recent progress in our world, but most likely this is due to education in general.

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Dan Brown July 17, 2010 at 7:41 am

How sad. The credulous believe the well being of mankind depends on our ability to embrace the indefinable. Good luck with that.

Such cosmology makes believers willing victims of the unscrupulous social engineers who design mysticisms (including all religions) to exploit them.

Such methods work at exactly the same level of efficiency as structuring your decisions around the wisdom of your daily horoscope.

There is no mystical. There is only that which we do not yet understand.

Try reality. It’s okay, really.

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Hendy July 17, 2010 at 7:49 am

Quite the read. It’s interesting that he says that atheists have no sense of ‘deeper realities’. I wonder if he’d be satisfied in one responding that they do have such a sense. A ‘deeper reality’ is simply that which is unknown or undiscovered…

I found it quite ‘fluffy’ in that I’m not really sure what meaning would be left if we stripped away all of the illustrative metaphors and non-content-rich statements.

It makes me wonder what it would look like if you had 2 more exchanges just on this letter and asked stuff like:
- so what does it mean to be ‘mystical’?
- Ok. Now what does that mean?
- Ah, I see. And what does that mean?
- and so on

Repeat that process for ‘Jesus compelling me’, ‘beauty and mystery bubble up…’, ‘connects directly with the ultimate reality’, ‘spiritual truth’, ‘vision of a new humanity’ and so on.

I get the feeling that these are somewhat inspirational tidbits but am not confident that 1) Mark would have thought each and every one through as to what he’s really trying to say, and 2) that if we did get the ‘content’ out we would have anything that is impossible to achieve atheistically.

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lukeprog July 17, 2010 at 7:59 am

Dan,

That’s roughly my reaction…

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lukeprog July 17, 2010 at 8:01 am

Hendy,

I think I’ve called Mark’s thought ‘fluffy’ before. :) Yeah, I’m not sure what ‘deeper reality’ means, or why one would have no sense of it without believing in an indefinable super-being.

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Lee A. P. July 17, 2010 at 9:28 am

Things aren’t “getting worse”.

70 years ago a mad man took over most of Europe.

Slavery is abolished in the US and in most places around the world.

Women can vote.

Diseases have been eradicated.

This is without a doubt the best time to be alive in human history if your goal is a chance at a comfortable life.

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Silas July 17, 2010 at 9:37 am

Clear and precise as always, LOL.

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noen July 17, 2010 at 10:56 am

Beware of someone else’s Utopia. It’s usually just a projection of their own will to power.

“things like hierarchies, collective violence, and general domination are problems that we need to work to dismantle, we should seek ways of organizing as humans that don’t encourage hierarchies, violence, or domination.”

The main error of anarchists is that they have a false view of human nature. This is also true of the other end of the spectrum, the fascists. Anarchists believe that if we just dismantle the rigid hierarchical structures of society we’ll have a better world because people just naturally get along when there is no one making them do so. Fascists believe that if we construct rigid hierarchical structures then people will just naturally fall in line because everyone wants to follow a leader.

Both think: “The world would be much better off if everyone was just like me.” What they don’t realize is that their narcissism is the real problem. Real life is a balancing act between freedom and order. There is no single political answer. You have to just… make it up as you go along and hope you don’t fuck up too badly.

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G'DIsraeli July 17, 2010 at 11:38 am

seems to fit:

“Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of,
the lack of evidence.” Richard Dawkins

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svenjamin July 17, 2010 at 12:24 pm

There is some relationship/debating/thinking advice that I think applies here: “Don’t respond to emotional questions with rational answers or vice versa.”
I can find things I agree with in this letter if I read it as an emotional expression of certain sentiments from a theist perpective. There is that line “A mystical atheism trumps, I believe, the cold belief of the fundamentalist every time.” I take this is a permission to substitute atheistic analogues of the expressed sentiments through the letter.

Toby and Lee: Note that he rejects The Myth(in the sense of “grand narrative”) of Progress. This doesn’t mean he thinks we are in a perpetual decline, but that he doesn’t think we are on a perpetually upward trajectory. Giving examples of some things that were worse in the past or better in the present would refute a Myth of Decline, but this does not counter a rejection of a Myth of Progress.

And for the record, according to recent historical studies of nutritional content of produce our food is becoming substantially less nutritious and flavorful due to the industrial food production system emphasizing size and durability over culinary quality.

noen: Right on target. I’d give fascism a better chance than anarchy though. ;P

Hendy: “It’s interesting that he says that atheists have no sense of ‘deeper realities’.”
Well, what he actually said was that an atheist perspective with no sense of deeper reality seems to him to lead to some undesireable conclusions. But that atheists can be mystics too.

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Toby July 17, 2010 at 12:46 pm

svenjamin,

You wrote, “And for the record, according to recent historical studies of nutritional content of produce our food is becoming substantially less nutritious and flavorful due to the industrial food production ”

Sure, and also according to recent historical studies automobiles are radically dangerous, responible for tens of thousands of deaths every year and even positively linked with incredible destructive effects on our environment.

Both of those statements above ignore considerable advancements made by science in both of these fields. Yes, there is much room for improvement for both, but that doesn’t mean we should stop using science and abandone these fields because of their risks or problems associated. Thanks to genetic enginering there are millions of people who have food that wouln’t grow in their part of the world (due to drought, soil condition, etc) that are alive solely becuase of the advancements in this field of study.

http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_specter_the_danger_of_science_denial.html

See link above, start at 12:20 for a good overview of this topic. Better yet, watch the whole video!

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svenjamin July 17, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Toby,
So there are other studies on completely different topics that can be cited in misleading ways when stripped of context. That is not surprising, and does nothing to undermine the fact that the nutritional content of supermarket tomatoes, broccoli, etc. has declined by a large margin over the last few decades.

Advances in food production are usually advances from the p.o.v. of profitabilty to multinational corporations, not from the perspective of the consumer. That is just the economics of the situation.

The structure of food production and industry is a very interesting topic that doesn’t get enough attention, but I think discussing it further here would be too far off topic.

I may watch that video when I have time. I am not a science-denialist by any means. But while we have made many advances in knowledge, they are not always put to good use.

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Zeb July 17, 2010 at 5:50 pm

Zen monks in general qualify as mystical atheists, I think.

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thepowerofmeow July 17, 2010 at 6:56 pm

“The credulous believe the well being of mankind depends on our ability to embrace the indefinable. Good luck with that.”

Everyone does it every moment of everyday. A life with no imagination, with no open-heartedness, with no possibility, with no values seems not only not worth living but also impossible. All of these things require embracing the indefinable.

I don’t think people should let broad concepts such as these be poisoned by the fact that some people take them and run waaaay too far with them (or is it way too short?)

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Dan Brown July 18, 2010 at 7:05 am

@thepowerofmeow

It’s one thing to recognize the indefinable. It’s quite another to base your philosophy and your cosmology on imaginary suppositions.

As a realist I do not lack imagination. I recognize imagination as imagination.
As a realist I do not lack open-heartedness. I recognize what I do not understand.
As a realist I do not reject possibility. I recognize probability.
As a realist I do not lack values. My values are hard won and never inspired.

You judge me as a person. I judge your cosmology.

Believers are owned by their imagination. I own mine and it is a stronger and more useful tool because of that ownership.

Never surrender your mind.

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thepowerofmeow July 18, 2010 at 9:57 am

Dan, good for you! I was not judging you personally, but rather saying that we all have to embrace the indefinable to a certain extent.

Remember, I said a lack of all those things was probably impossible. I am sorry if it came across as accusatory. My assumption was that you had all those qualities. And I don’t recall any cosmology arising in Mark’s letter – but I will recheck. Maybe it is in the comments somewhere. I think his points have more to do with personal experience.

We all surrender our mind at some point. It’s a powerful but limited tool. The breadth of our experience is not entirely contained within our understanding.

It’s one thing to think it’s improbable that Jesus actually rose physically from the dead. And to complain that many believers throw out “the rules” when it comes to judging that historical claim. Or to complain about specific, baseless cosmologies. I understand that.

It’s another thing to say that people are being unreasonable to always maintain a sense of openness to whatever it is that IS – the mysterious “IS”!

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Mark Van Steenwyk July 20, 2010 at 7:20 pm

For clarification: this is what I mean by the “myth of progress”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idea_of_Progress#Myth_of_Progress

Yes, our technology and understanding have, in many ways, increased. But that doesn’t make us wiser, more moral, or more compassionate.

And, speaking of wiser, I have yet to hear any real argument to why my believe in the Divine makes me less wise, less sane, more gullible, etc. I don’t believe, even in the slightest, that theists are generally more likely to be deficient in any area outside of religious belief than any atheist. Christians usually argue the opposite, in fact. And there is something to that line of thinking. Could a Gandhi or a King or a Jesus been such apart from their faith? Or were they such in spite of it?

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charles July 21, 2010 at 8:53 am

the term ultimate reality is nonsense. jesus never existed and the bible is a bunch of stories about events that never happened and people who never existed.

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The Charismanglican July 21, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Like Socrates or Shakespeare, it may be difficult to know how or whether the historical person of Jesus matches up with tradition, but anyone who thinks that Jesus didn’t exist is either uneducated or blinded by ideology.

Yeah…and Caesar Augustus, Quirinius, Nebuchadnezzar never existed? Jeesh.

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charles July 22, 2010 at 10:27 am

you cannot disprove my statement.

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charles July 22, 2010 at 10:40 am

anyone who believes jesus existed is ignorant.

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charles July 22, 2010 at 11:25 am

the notion of god is the biggest load of nonsense ever concocted.

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Orrin S Pratt July 22, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Sharkey “Shakey knowledge”

It sounds like Mark would be happier as a Sufi Muslim rather than an ill-defined subjugated Christian.
I also have problems understanding how a good atheist should have an intimate connection with God; logical consistency is not a requirement for mysticism, obviously.  

Comment | July 17, 2010

Orrin: Just because you do not understand a set of statements and conclusions this doesn’t mean that the argument or syllogism is wrong.
To assume that because you don’t get it and that consequently it is wrong, is to assert that your intellect is the limitation, boundary or more beautifully stated the beginning and the end of truth.
From inside of you, (you know) your interior subjective perspective this is in sense very true.
Because reality or phenomena as your experience it is literally created in your perceptions within your self and this self lens is the only tool you can telescope or microscope or scope any and all t(T)ruth that you can see. All other domains of t(T)ruth (subjective, objective, intersubjective, and interobjective, although it could be argued successfully that each quadrant of truth or corner of reality also has an interior and exterior as well) are filtered though your unique self.
So yeah basically if you accept that the words you are reading right now are your words, and from your mind, and and your heart, then yes this is the truth.

And yet your truths are ever expanding for example you know that your dissolution with Christianity and mysticism are mildly if not actually largely exclusive meaning your feeliings for religion are centered around your lack of… (no lol) rather you surplus, your abundance of actuated and real competence interacting with un-actuated competence. But your feelings toward this betray you and your competence exposing the sick limitation of your real competence.
Are you a Sufi? have you ever studied Sufi’s. They are basically the Evangelical’s or charismatics of the muslim world.

(By the way love Rumi… beautiful shit. if you haven’t checkout the Sufi poet Rumi, do yourself a favor. If you live in minneaopolis find me on facebook i’ll give you a book to read.)

So, Sufi magic is more real magic that Christian magic? WTF!?
okay, okay here’s the deal. Your rational self which is more complex or developed according to at least the top 100 most accepted developmental models of human development in both subjective and intersubjective truth clams (psychology and anthropology) when compared to magic selfness. But you are me as you are not yet sufficiently developed human technology to have perspective on your own insufficiency of concern for the reality that you are feeling hurt by “stupid magic people,” (people who have faith in magic who btw is most definitely not all religious or mystical folk as more all ont this forum seems illogically and falsely assert” who you assume are all religious and mystic folk and thusly feel a need to harm “them,” you know harm the “other(s)” like a child throwing a temper tantrum at mommy (mommy isn’t me and i’m not happy so fuck her i’m gonna cry till she makes me happy) Fuck Christians i’m gonna cry till Christians make me happy by not being Christians. I’ll mock them and call them stupid or create a socio group that hates them so they feel belittled so i feel better.
infantile and yet useful because this tantrum leads to mommy and daddy or mommy and mommy and daddy and daddy realizing how really limited you are. And because she is and daddy is sufficiently evolved human technology they give you love we nurture you with wisdom and compassion and even though you fight and thrash trying not to die you die anyway and are reborn new(you grow).
you die to one self and are already the old self and the new self with more perspective and more boundaries and greater depths to plum. Just like when you you died to the idea that santa claus we real or monsteres were under your bed or that you could be harmed in your dreams. just like when you die to your dreaming and wake up embodied in physical reality you will die again and wake in reality more than just limited physical objective truth claims.
you will up to the the quadrants of reality mutually interpenetrating the entire self spanning all your Self in everything, not just existentially infantilistically but honestly.

to those of you reading this post who agree with so farr at least Sharkey Toby Dan henry luke pro Lee Silas noen G’DI and so on…

You have good and right thoughts but you are still so young so undeveloped it shameful that you feel so smart. because truth told none had consistent or complex or valid truly valid claims to make against Mark.
You shame me with your simple and undeveloped lack of real hearty atheism…
And honestly Mark could have argued better. I’ve seen him make much more compelling and legitimate arguments.
Yes Mark has friends who aren’t Christian’s for example me.
An although you may feel totally indemnity to attack him because Christians in the past have done horrible things, you expose yourselves as child like in the classic infantile logical mistake of confusing subject and predicate.
So if i believe rabbits are lucky then i can confuse and conflate that a rabbit’s foot is also lucky and that having rabbit’s foot makes “me” lucky.
Or if you will a story from the bible where this kind simple and childish consciousness is used.
Samson is strong and his hair is as much him as the totality of him is him. So if i take away his hair then he is no longer him and his him will no longer be strong… but rather i, me his defeater who now owns his him his essence (his hair) is now the one who is strong.

do you see children? I do. i’m looking at your words and i see young adults still pretending to be children playing at murdering the others. because they aren’t cool like me or us or we.
Well you we is you I your me, who is is it? NO. Not who do you think you are…. Rather who are you?

if your look deeply enough you may ind that you are struggling against yourself.
~Big Love

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Orrin S. Pratt July 22, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Sorry to come off so brash, but I am very protective of my Mark.
~Big Love

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Big Jiimbo August 2, 2010 at 5:06 pm

“Atheism is indeed the most daring of all dogmas . . . for it is the assertion of a universal negative.”
G.K. Chesterton

“Progress is Providence without God. That is, it is a theory that everything has always perpetually gone right by accident. It is a sort of atheistic optimism, based on an everlasting coincidence far more miraculous than a miracle.” G.K. Chesterton

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charles August 16, 2010 at 9:24 am

the chesterton quotes are nothing but nonsense. you can’t prove anything by quoting him.

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