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Date Posted: 11:41
Author: Mike Drake - 8 Jun 2001
Subject: Burbank an Atheist?
In reply to: Waqidi - 5 Jun 2001 's message, "Re: Burbank, Microfiche and Statistical Blunders" on 11:40

The following is in response to your post above (here*), which I missed when it appeared initially. Although I have sort of dealt with these issues (e.g. here**), I nonetheless thought I should respond (at the risk of reopening a side issue).

1. PER BURBANK, ‘GOD’ IS MEANINGLESS

Burbank himself disclaims the idea of ‘god’ as “meaningless.” Does that make him an atheist? Well, one cannot coherently claim both that ‘x’ is meaningless and that one believes x exists. So if you had asked Burbank “Do you believe god exists?” he would have to answer in the negative. (Verify this for yourself: Pick a term you think is meaningless – say, ‘gubluergets’; now, do gubluergets exist? No: after all, ‘gubluergets’ is meaningless.***)

But couldn’t we just as well say then that Burbank was agnostic, as you do? Sure. But that’s not necessarily inconsistent with saying Burbank was an atheist. Agnosticism in at least one sense is the view that all claims to knowledge are uncertain. That’s the mantra of science itself, and by no means forecloses the concurrent announcement of tentative (yet robust) disbelief in god.

As well, this notion that spiritualism and atheism are somehow inconsistent has to go. Atheists can be spiritual; they just can’t be spiritualists.

2. BURBANKS OTHER REMARKS DO NOT CONTRADICT HIS OTHERWISE QUALIFIED ATHEISM

First, I’ll stipulate as to the authenticity of your quotations, Waqidi. (Would that once in a while you could to do for me the same favor! :-)) Second, I will not address the editorial remarks of the magazine or the paraphrasing of third parties. Third, I think it best to leave Edison out of the discussion.**** Thus, I look only to Burbank’s own words as they are quoted in excerpts you have provided.

2.1 "I HAVE not changed my views on immortality.”

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Burbank’s view on immortality is that there is “immortality of influence” (not immortality of souls). (The quotation you yourself provide buttresses the point – with respect to both Burbank and Edison.*****) This apparently is the view he “has not changed.”

2.2 “The word 'God' has no meaning for me. . . .”

See discussion at 1, above.

2.3. “I believe there is a supreme intelligence pervading the universe."

Loose or figurative talk about a “supreme intelligence” hardly confirms theism (or disconfirms atheism). Here I think Burbank was being just as sloppy as he was when he claimed that ‘god’ is “meaningless.”******

Naturally, if you define god as the “supreme intelligence,” then Burbank was not an atheist. But since he counts ‘god’ as meaningless, clearly he would not so define it. So if it’s not clear exactly what Burbank meant by “supreme intelligence,” it is clear that he didn’t mean ‘god’.*******

2.4 “In pursuing the study of any of the universal and everlasting laws of nature. . .”

I’m not sure where it is in this quotation that compelling anti-atheist evidence lies. Obviously, Burbank’s remarks about “Mother Nature” are figurative.

3. EXCURSUS: WILL THE “REAL” BURBANK PLEASE STEP FORWARD?

I have in other posts already given several arguments about the relative probative weight that should be accorded the competing accounts (Yogananda’s v. the paper’s) of Burbanks views on reincarnation. I’ll give the main one again, abstracting out the issue of personae:

Suppose persons A and B report Person C’s remarks on topic T. According to A, C said: “T is false.” C is alive when this report becoms public, and never challenges it. On the other hand, 20 years later (after C is dead), B, who teaches that T is true, reports that A said: “T is true.”

Question: Which report is prima facie more likely to be true?

3. CONCLUSION

I think you are right that Burbank was “a skeptic of traditional religions and their concepts,” and that he was yet at the same time “a spiritual person who expressed an inner reverence for all things.” Nonetheless, for the reasons given, I also think Burbank was an atheist in an important sense: For him, the notion of god was meaningless.

Yogananda surely would have disagreed.

___
NOTES
* Re(3): Burbank, Microfiche and Statistical Blunders - By waqidi 6/5/2001 at 09:48:02 AM.

** Re(6): Burbank, Microfiche and Statistical Blunders - By Mike Drake 6/6/2001 at 06:44:35 PM),

*** Thus, we are all a-gubluergetists!

**** For one thing, it is at best an essentially duplicative discussion. E.g., what did Edison mean when he said that he had never seen “the slightest scientific proof of the religious theories of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal God”? (Is this view anti-reincarnation?) Or what did he mean when he said that “ALL [my emphasis] religion is bunk”?

***** "Thomas Edison, who believes very much as Luther Burbank, once discussed with me immortality. He pointed to the electric light, his invention, saying: ‘There lives Tom Edison.’ So Luther Burbank lives. He lives forever in the myriad fields of strengthened grain, in the new forms of fruits and flowers, and plants, and vines, and trees, and above all, the newly watered gardens of the human mind. . . ." This use of the term ‘immortality’ is obviously nonliteral, and therefore entirely distinct from the notion of immortality operant in Yogananda’s and other mystic teachings.

****** The term ‘god’ clearly admits of meaningful discussion, and thus can’t be “meaningless” in any strict sense. Burbank should have been more careful in discussing such dicey matters.

******* I myself used to use the phrase “supreme intelligence” while at the same time holding atheist convictions; I no longer use that construction because it is clumsy and carries undesirable, theistic connotations.

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