During the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, philosopher and San Francisco State professor Jacob Needleman had an epiphany. Rather than fear, he experienced “a profound sense of wonder that such a movement as this could in one moment take away everything in my life.” Needleman describes this “metaphysical event” in his new book, “An Unknown World” which explores the nature and “meaning” of the Earth and humans’ relationship to it.

Jacob Needleman, author of "An Unknown World: Notes on the Meaning of the Earth" and professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University

  • Rufus

    Religiousness is a delusional state, a psychosis and detachment from reality. That delusional person then embraces religious texts, which for instance in the Torah describe non-believers as animals, to justify hatred, sadism and exclusion. There is no wisdom or meaning or purpose to be found in religion. It is sheer folly.

  • Ehkzu

    Dr. Needleman repeats the false choice fallacy so many religious people use–that either you’re religious or your life and the whole universe are meaningless. I know many nonreligious people and not one of them finds their life–or the universe–meaningless. I’m not anti-religious, but this kind of spiritual arrogance tempts me. You talk about “militant atheists” but not about militant theism.
    There are no atheist suicide bombers.

  • Patrick

    Earlier there was a discussion about humanities role in the greater scheme of nature, that nothing in nature exists without a specific place in the larger pattern.

    What about the idea that human consciousness is just a so-far successful evolutionary development? Have we ridden that evolutionary wave as far as it will take us and now find ourselves having so thoroughly upset the balance of nature that we have become the next great extinction event?

    More species have gone extinct in the past than live on the planet today. Are humans (among many others) one of the next animals to go on account of our own environmental impact?

    I’d love to hear your guest’s perspectives on this.

  • Ehkzu

    Anyone who says “science takes things apart; religion puts things together” knows nothing about science and not much more about religion.
    Value and purpose lie fully within the province of science, since human nature is anything but a blank slate. Can religious people say anything about their beliefs without attacking those who hold different ones?

    • Joel

      Every group whose beliefs are based on conjecture and unproven claims will find itself in conflict with both
      (A) people whose beliefs are based on facts
      (B) other people whose beliefs are based on DIFFERENT unproven claims.

  • Ben

    OK, so everyone feels wonder and awe at the creative and destructive power of nature. But to say this leads us to a deity, which is SUPERNATURAL by definition, just doesn’t follow. Athiests can be just as spiritual and love nature as much as religious people, but reject the need for supernatural explanations pf the universe.

    • Joel

      The more I learn about physical science, the less room that I see for any explanation of anything based on an invisible man in the sky.

      Religion consists of ignorant, lazy thinkers claiming to have knowledge and wisdom that they clearly lack.

      • Sam Badger

        This is a huge straw man argument, not every religious person believes in a bearded man living in the sky. Calling all religious people “ignorant” when some of the greatest geniuses, not only in history but of our own era, have in fact been religious, is very arrogant. It’s doubly arrogant when you use such a simplistic argument against them.

        • Joel

          Ignorance is the essence of faith: It’s a decision to not know the facts, and to instead insist that unproven stories are true.

          Einstein and was atheist.
          Freud was an atheist.
          Name one “great” person who was not.

          • Sam Badger

            Newton? Liebnitz? Descartes? Pascal? Leonardo da Vinci? Francis Collins who leads the human genome project? We wouldn’t have calculus or physics without religious people! History is full of brilliant religious people and many scientists today are Christians, Buddhists, Jews and so on. There are brilliant atheists too but it’s just wrong to think that all great scientists and thinkers are atheists. It’s also just wrong to think that faith is the same as ignorance.

          • Brian

            The specialties of those people did not require that they not be hobbled by faith, and their faith is not what caused them to have useful insights. Most of them could have been pagans following Wotan, or atheists, and it would not have mattered.

            da Vinci was a skeptic.

          • Torgeir Hansson

            Newton was also an alchemist.

          • Lizzie

            Ah Joel, Einstein was falsely dubbed an atheist because of his disbelief in an ANTHROPORMORPHIC god. He sensed God as “a Superior Mind that reveals itself in the world of experience.” He said, “…whether I have a clear idea of God as I have of a triangle, I would answer in the affirmative; but (as to) a clear image of God…I would answer in the negative. For of God no image can be made.” In an audio recording of his Glaubensbekenntnis, he speaks of “A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate…of the profoundest reason and most radiant beauty…” and adds, “in this sense…I am a deeply religious man. …this cosmic religious feeling is very difficult to elucidate …to anyone entirely without it, especially as there is no corresponding anthropomorphic conception of God. …religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this feeling, which knows no dogma and no God in man’s image…Hence it is precisely among the heretics…regarded by their contemporaries as atheists, sometimes also as saints…that we find …this highest kind of religiosity.”

        • @sam Well said

    • Sam Badger

      Well, how we define a deity differs in different faiths and sects, but yes its true that atheists can have spiritual experiences too. Religion isn’t just about supernatural explanations it’s about trying to make those spiritual experiences something communal, in that everyone has the same kind of understanding of those religious experiences and what they mean. That’s of course why religion can be used to manipulate people (by misleading folks about the nature of that experience) but it doesn’t need to be.

  • Joel

    This irrational fellow is very spiteful toward atheists. He sounds like someone who is bitter that he has lost an argument, and rather than engage in self-questioning, he utilizes Straw Man arguments to misconstrue atheists and atheism and claim a false victory over them. Science has explained more and more every year and there is simply no room for gods as explanatory tools. He pretends that so much is unknowable only because he want to claim to have the answers, but is obviously unqualified to provide answers. He is a shallow man claiming depth.

    • Sam Badger

      How ironic, you accuse him of being spiteful and using a straw man argument against atheists then employ a straw man argument about religious people in a spiteful manner.

      • Joel

        Nope. Faith is a choice to be ignorant. People with faith are therefore ignorant by choice. That’s a true statement, not a Straw Man.

        • Sam Badger

          It’s a huge straw man to define “faith” the way you do for all religious people in the world and then use that definition to condemn them. That definition of faith is not one many religious people would endorse, so to call it a “true statement” is in fact a straw man.

  • Chemist150

    As an atheist, I have a belief that fulfills me. It’s that we are biological beings and evolution has brought us to this point. Our purpose is to continue evolving and to expand beyond the Earth.

    The Earth life is finite in it’s lifetime and if humans die with it, our purpose would be for nothing. Can you see beyond yourself and see eternity?

    Thus, the only way to find meaning is to learn to live beyond our star and continue our evolution.

    • Joel

      You’re confusing evolution and progress. If survival necessitated that humans develop a unicorn’s horn, eventually it would happen or we’d all die off. Going off-planet if not necessary for survival would be progress, not evolution.

      • Chemist150

        I’m not sure what you’re trying to say but getting off this planet is absolutely required for survival. Our species is more likely to die off than to continue for another 4 billion years. We could die in an asteroid collision but if we were on Mars, we’d increase our chances of survival. Our sun will burn out within the next 4 billion years and if we’ve not learned to live without Earth before then, we are 100% gone as a species.

        I don’t see why evolution could not be progress.

  • Pedro

    A true philosopher this guy. Detached from reality, spurning science, wondering whether he actually exists. And then ponders a God and a soul and other metaphysical nonsense.

  • Robert Holtermann

    Samuel Badger (above) says, “Religion isn’t just about supernatural explanations it’s about trying to
    make those spiritual experiences something communal, in that everyone
    has the same kind of understanding of those religious experiences and
    what they mean.” The first clause is true and profound; the second clause is not. We can, we must, live in community without being identical to one another.

    • Sam Badger

      IMO the second clause is what explains why religious institutions fail so often to really enlighten people … we shouldnt be identical to one another you are right, but religious dogmatists tend to think strong cultural homogeneity is a good thing.

  • Torgeir Hansson

    This is what gets me: religions that stipulated a strong connection to the Earth were mostly goddess religions. They were driven off the scene, usually by violent means, by Christianity, a much more strict, patriarchal religion that expressly separated man from the rest of “Creation.”

    Now that science has supplanted Christianity as the thinking man’s dissection tool it wants not its old place back, as the stark, book-based religion it once was. It wants the place of the Earth Goddess religions.

    It wants to be the mystical outlet, the lens towards the unknowable. This was more or less Mr. Needleman’s position today. Christianity has NEVER been that religion. Christianity has always been about accepting the writings of a book, not about rapturous experiences. It has been about salvation through obedience, not about getting closer to the mysteries of the Earth.

    Mr. Needleman also spoke of “militant scientism.” Excuse me? It would be nice if he could give a single example of science “militantly” fighting against a religious tenet, position, or activity without having every right on its side. Male circumcision anyone? Female circumcision? Anti-Semittism? Discrimination and apartheid?

    Awe and wonder can be just that, and nothing more. It doesn’t need to be a “spiritual” experience. I don’t even know what that means, come to think of it.

  • Andrew

    Yes, yes. Comments about religion and nature are fine. But I have more pressing matters: did anyone else catch Michael Krasny’s pronunciation of “unknown”? [ʌnoʊwn]?

  • Susie M

    I didn’t find Dr. Needleman to disparage science nor to discount it. My take away from his interview was that the soul exists with or without “religion” and that the more you know science the more you may also know spirituality. The soul’s existence is metaphysical. If you do not have the experience of soul you may say spiritual people or religious people (and the two are not necessarily the same) are fools or choosing to be in denial (as I’ve read below). If you do have the experience of soul you may think that atheists are in denial, as well. Or in the dark. My feeling is that the experience of soul is a kind of knowing. For me, it doesn’t depend on you having that experience. I’m not interested in proving it. It’s also not necessarily a religious experience. Or an anti-science experience. I believe we have souls and I believe in evolution. The former belief has nothing to do with a bearded man in the sky. I just find it interesting how the people who were offended by Dr. Needleman’s position are so unquestionably dogmatic about it. Atheism as doctrine.

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