I Met God — God Without Religion, Scripture, or Faith: First Doubts
BRAD LINAWEAVER: A crucial question now arises. Is it possible you went into the writing of The Rainbow Cadenza — your second novel — an atheist but came out an agnostic?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: I don’t know if I’d crossed over to being an agnostic, but I do recall somewhere near the end of writing that book, sometime in late 1981, having some sort of bad night, where I was up and really going through something emotionally on this issue. I was really, really scared in some sense. I’m not sure exactly of what, but I was being confronted somehow.
I would say that perhaps that was where I first had the experience that C.S. Lewis had talked about in Surprised by Joy of feeling that maybe there was something on the other end of this conversation communicating with me, that it wasn’t just a debate going on in my own mind. Not that in, any philosophical sense, I considered myself an agnostic. That didn’t happen until later. But I would say that emotionally, I started having the sense that there was somebody else in the conversation with me, that it wasn’t simply books I had read.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Were you living the experience that C.S. Lewis wrote about that the young atheist must be very careful about the books he reads?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Well, I was long gone once I’d read The Chronicles of Narnia. I was not going to get through that without considering those arguments. Coming from a background of so little faith, I didn’t have a resentment of Christianity or anything like that. I wasn’t raised in a Catholic school with nuns teaching me, or anything like that. I didn’t have any religious indoctrination. So I was willing to give these ideas a fair shot. But nonetheless, I was simply trying to figure out if there was a supernatural what was it? Again, I was expecting that anything supernatural —anything above Nature — was going to have laws that it followed, the same as the nature which we understood.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Now why did you make that assumption?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Because I was a rationalist.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Natural law?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Yes, as far as I was concerned natural law would apply even to the supernatural. That whatever there was that was above the plane of existence which we experienced would have its own natural laws as well.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Let me make sure I understand this; what you are saying is that in your system, or what you were beginning to divine to perhaps be the nature of the universe, it is a mistake to assume — and let’s use the term supernatural for now because it’s the concept I can get my brain around — that it is an error to think that the supernatural is simply a suspension or violation of natural law.
Your position is if the supernatural or other realm exists that natural law applies to it as well, but it is a mistake to view the existence of that other realm as a violation of natural law, if natural law applies to that realm as well.
Is that a proper paraphrase?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Almost, but I do have to make some distinctions.
I saw it as quite possible that there could be laws which would be true to our plane of existence as local phenomena such as the laws of chemistry, the laws of physics, the laws of how space/time worked, gravitation, speed of light. All these sorts of things were local phenomena. But there had to be some overriding natural laws which would apply in all modes of existence, all the universe, all possible universes. So in other words, I saw that there had to be some sort of universal natural laws, laws of logic or something intrinsic to the nature of reality, which would guide the formation of the physical laws with the universes.
Okay, so I saw that even the meta-law, which created the natural law of our universe, would have its own rules, its own principles, its own necessary logic. So I saw that the supernature would have supernatural laws. In the sense of laws which would necessitate certain things, exclude other things. That there were things that would be impossible in any existence
of any sort.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: So, is it fair to say that the philosophical position you were developing at that time in many ways transcends the normal debates between say, the Aristotelians and the Korzybskians? That a large part of the General Semantics’ case against Aristotle is a too-narrow application of what Aristotle might be? Or to phrase it differently, if you’re very much part of classical philosophy with your commitment to natural law but somehow you’re able to be modern as well, in terms of how you deal with the details of the machinery, there’s where you’re more like Korzybski. But your overarching theory is more like Aristotle in terms of natural law. How about that?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Yes. I think that says it.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: This is very interesting. You’re the first person I’ve ever encountered who accepted some kind of supernatural universe when the issue of God was still very distant from you and you were still on your way from an atheist perspective to an agnostic perspective on the issue of God, while already having accepted a more multi-layered universe than most people would ever
consider when they call themselves an atheist or an agnostic.
So having said all that, do you remember what it was that finally brought you to the intellectual position of agnosticism about God?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Well, before I answer that question I have to say where I got this idea of an overriding supernature. I got it from Lewis and Heinlein. And it wasn’t mostly from Lewis’s nonfiction arguments, but simply from how he portrayed things in Narnia. In Narnia you have different worlds with their own laws. For example, magic works in Narnia. But when the Queen of Charn – who has magic in her own world – comes to ours, she doesn’t have the power. It seemed obvious to me that you could have different worlds with different natural laws – different physical laws – because Lewis portrayed that in Narnia.
I’ve joked before that the difference between
So in that sense, being a child who grew up on
Lewis didn’t sell Narnia to children in the way that L. Frank Baum sold The Wizard of Oz, in the sense that anything could happen. There were definite things that could and couldn’t happen in that universe. There were laws that worked there and things worked a certain way. The magic in
Now in Heinlein we go into things like “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” and “They.” Heinlein in his Unknown type stories-
BRAD LINAWEAVER: – for John W. Campbell’s fantasy magazine,
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: – he was dealing with the same sort of things. Things like Magic, Inc., in which again, if magic existed, there were going to be rules and there were going to be ways it worked and there were going to be ways it didn’t work. And so from both of them, I was getting a sense that even though there could be things which were apparently supernatural, particularly in Heinlein’s story “Lost Legacy,” where you had all these ancient psychic powers which were innate in us but simply had been forgotten, it was obvious to me that if psychic phenomena and the supernatural – and even ghosts and afterlife existed – there were rules. There were ways that things worked and it may be that we didn’t know how they worked but that didn’t mean that it was chaotic. It didn’t mean that anything could happen. It simply meant that we didn’t understand the rules yet.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Now, at that time when you were reading all this material you wouldn’t know what you would learn later, as you learn more about the actual writers that you admire so much, because Heinlein and Lewis are two of your favorite writers?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Yes.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: But it’s interesting to realize later on that these two authors were doing a form of logical fantasy that was quite unusual. John W. Campbell was getting logical fantasy from Heinlein for
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Yes, except for one thing, that Lewis was a fan. Lewis read American science fiction. He read Astounding, he read
BRAD LINAWEAVER: And also he actually appeared in an interview in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He even did some short stories for the American Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: And he even comments, I think, on some Heinlein stories in some of those discussions.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: That is correct and you can read some of that in Lewis’s Of Other Worlds. But I’m talking about the young J. Neil Schulman who doesn’t know a lot of this –
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Right.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: – coming from your secular Jewish background. Of all the people for you to find as a master of logical fantasy – if you had been asked to make a bet at the time – the last person you’d bet on is one of the best-known Christian apologists of all time. It’s not the guy you’d expect to be the logical fantasy writer – you see what I’m saying?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Yes. However, at that age, thinking of Lewis as primarily a Christian writer never would have occurred to me.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: No, but you find that out later and this is very important. We’re back to Rainbow Cadenza. I believe a huge watershed in the development of your thought – and preparing you for the experiences that you later had, which is the primary thrust of this book – I believe is in that exchange between the Lewis fan and the Rand fan in Rainbow Cadenza that I studied very closely to do my afterword. I realized that I had been given the best assignment of all the “rainbow” of afterwords because something in me told me way back then, that there was something, in that exchange between those two minds from such opposite worlds, that was crucial to thinking going on in you, and that something was changing in your philosophy toward the universe. That was the impression that I had at the time that I wrote that afterword.
So you were an atheist coming to agnosticism?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Right. And, by the way, let’s look at my cultural milieu then. I was surrounded by other atheists. There were no believers around me you know. I was hanging around with a libertarian crowd of whom atheism was simply taken for granted.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: You didn’t know anyone like me at that time who was an intellectual agnostic?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Heinlein called himself an agnostic.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: But I mean in your immediate group?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: The distinction between agnosticism and atheism at that point wouldn’t have been a very sharp distinction for me.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: And you had never met somebody with my form of agnosticism?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: No
BRAD LINAWEAVER: My deeply intellectual committed agnosticism?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: No. Agnosticism to me merely was a different word to describe, as far as I was concerned, that “I need more proof that there is a god.”
BRAD LINAWEAVER: By the way, I sounded very pompous when I just said “deeply intellectual agnosticism” what I was trying to say was “a well-thought-out agnostic system.” Most people say they’re agnostics because they don’t want to be bothered. I actually do have a developed agnostic system, as you know.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Right. And of course that was how Heinlein described himself, also, because when I interviewed Heinlein in July, 1973, I described myself to him as an atheist and he described himself to me as an agnostic, but both of us used the same paradigm to describe ourselves and that is that there is insufficient proof that there is a God. He used the word “agnosticism” to describe that and I used the word “atheism” to describe that. So as far as I was concerned it was a distinction with no difference.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: It’s the old Scot’s jury verdict that instead of saying “not guilty” said “not proven.”
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: But the one source for me, at that time, of people who believed in God, were the people at the C.S. Lewis Society and some of the Mythopoeic Society. Those were the only people I knew who believed in God.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Now that was the New York group?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: No, in California. Now, I knew observant Jews in New York. They were part of our circle at the NYU Science Fiction Society meetings, which I attended. But it never crossed my mind whether their being observant really had to do with whether they believed in God or not.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Oh please amplify that remarkable sentence. Elaborate.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Because, in my experience, being a Jew had very little to do with whether or not you believed in God. It had to do with following traditions. It’s almost like Judaism, you know, it’s the debate whether it’s a religion or a race. It’s neither. It’s a tradition. It’s a series of ritualized performances, in the same way that my Bar Mitzvah, to me, was like rehearsing for a stage show or something like that. It was, in essence, learning a performance.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Like rehearsing for the ultimate play or something like that.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Like rehearsing for a play.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: And the grandparents are the audience.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Right. So to me Judaism wasn’t a religion. Judaism wasn’t a race. Judaism was in essence a tradition which was passed down from generation to generation to generation of observing and enacting certain behaviors.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Oh, what a beautiful way to put it! You’re going to allow me to do this now, Neil. I’m going to give you a Gene Scott quote you will like.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: All right, you’re entitled.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Gene Scott when he said, on the first book of his I ever read and the blurb right on the back cover was a quote from Scott, and Scott said “Traditions make void the Word of God,” and my Roman Catholic aunt was horrified by that and wouldn’t even read a book that had that on it. I thought the Roman Catholics would be the ones most offended by such a sentiment. But now I’m beginning to realize that actually the observant Jews might be more offended by Gene Scott’s statement than even the Roman Catholics – is that a fair assessment?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: I think the Jews I know who would discuss this, particularly Dennis Prager, wouldn’t be offended by Gene Scott’s comment so much as they would want to argue and explain.
Dennis Prager has described himself as a behaviorist – not in the B.F. Skinner sense of operant conditioning or something like that – but in the sense that — in his view — God does not judge our thoughts. Which is a great distinction from Christianity where Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, in essence invents thought-crime. “You’ve been told if you commit adultery it’s a sin. I tell you if you lust in your heart that’s an equivalent sin” is, in essence, Jesus inventing thought-crime.
From the Jewish conception there is no thought-crime. There is only behavior. There’s only what you do, not what you think. If you observe what is expected to happen, I imagine – from the Jewish perspective – is that the actions that you take will form your character.
Now Heinlein himself reiterates this in
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Yes.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: – the choices you make are who you are forever, that that is what defines you. And that’s a very Jewish thought in the sense that behavior – how you act – is more important than what you think.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: A more traditional Christian point of view might be summed up as “character is destiny,” as a different concept than being concerned with behavior, because the thing is there’s different Christian traditions. Some Christian traditions are very concerned with the law, and then are very concerned with behavior. But Grace Christianity is of course much less concerned with behavior and much more concerned with intent.
But I understand one thing about the thought-crime point that you’ve made – from what I understand about Jesus Christ saying that in The Sermon on the Mount. What I understand Jesus Christ to be saying is no one can stop these sinful thoughts therefore you will be sinners no matter how many rules you keep. Therefore you need another way to salvation. That keeping 600 rules — not ten but 600 rules — the way to salvation is the thing I’m going to give you. You can’t get to Heaven on your own by keeping rules because you’re going to sin no matter what. It’s “thought-crime” as a way to escape from the yoke and burden of trying to be perfect, as opposed to, say, thought-crime in
So it’s almost a libertarian version of thought-crime if you say you can’t help but sin. You see what I’m saying? The whole Christian tradition took those thought-crimes and created control, control, control, and others took to free up those things.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: But you see I see where that’s coming from. That’s coming from the idea that we’re fallen, which is a big deal in Christianity. That we’re fallen, we’re suckers who don’t have an even break.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: That’s totally correct. That’s what it says.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Okay, you may have free will, but forget it – you’ve already lost.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Until you accept this deal, you got it.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: But the Jew doesn’t believe in Original Sin.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Right that’s a Christian invention or contribution.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: It’s not part of Jewish thinking. If I was taught anything about Christianity, in my childhood, it’s that Jews don’t believe in Original Sin and Christians do.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Right. That’s right
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Now you could argue about whether or not Jews believe in free will or predestination.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: I think there’s two sides to that argument too.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: But nonetheless, destiny is not something like predestiny. In essence, if anything, every action you take is a creation of destiny. Every choice you make is a creation of destiny. You are creating destiny with every free-will choice you make. That would be the way that I would conceive it and I think that’s a Jewish viewpoint. So when Dennis Prager talks about behavior as being what’s important, he is looking at it from outside of the consequence of choice.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: You’ve given me an epiphany. Let me ask you this question. Could it be that something that the ancient pagans and the ancient Hebrews had in common was no part of this original-sin belief and Christianity brought the original-sin concept in? Is it not a reasonable assumption, though obviously it requires more research, the ancient pagans and the Jews who fought like crazy over many things, neither would have a clue what Original Sin was? The pagan didn’t have Original Sin either. That’s what I’m asking.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Let me make a further distinction between the Jew and the pagan here. The pagan – you’re correct – didn’t have any concept of Original Sin in that sense. The Jew would believe in the Fall of Nature and the Fall of Man but
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Ah, here’s the distinction I wasn’t getting. They go along with the Christian view up to the point where the Christians took the Jewish concept and added this to it.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: You might think of it as, remember and this is again where I read Genesis and I seem to get things out of it that other people reading it don’t focus on. It’s not just the Fall of Man it’s also the Fall of Nature.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Yes that’s right.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN:
Now that tells me something okay, that tells me the physical universe around you is different.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Oh you’re not alone in this view, by the way. Lewis is totally with you on this.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Okay. The physical universe around you is different and that means that you have greater obstacles than you would’ve had. As far as I was concerned – in reading Genesis and looking at it and trying to analyze it and make sense out of it - it was telling me that, not living in Eden, we had a steeper hill to climb but it was still a hill which we could climb. It was just going to be harder. Maybe, if you want to talk about it almost like in a physical sense, instead of living on a planet with one-sixth earth’s gravity, we are now living with six times the gravity than living on Earth. In other words, we’re living on a planet where things are harder because of what had happened.
Well, harder does not mean that you’ve necessarily lost. It merely means that you need to put in more effort and rise to a higher standard to overcome. Okay? You could still do it; it was just going to be harder.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Sisyphus rolling the rock in hell right up to lip of the cliff and than it always rolls back down on him? Is that an original-sin type of notion? Basically you’re saying you could get that rock over the hill.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Yes.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: I want to get back to one thing. You were having your experience with the C.S. Lewis Society Christians and you were having your experience with the Rand/Objectivist-tinged libertarians. And you were dealing with these two groups of people, both of whom had a set of convictions. With the passage of time, it turns out you’ve got something very different going on in your head. Something very different is going on in your head than a traditional Christian view, a traditional Jewish view or a traditional atheist view – where the Objectivists are classical atheists.
What I want to ask is, with this back-and-forth, did you sense both that – A – both sides had some legitimate arguments but – B – both sides had an inadequate or incomplete case? There was something missing. That’s what I got from your stuff in Rainbow Cadenza, in that section I studied for my afterword. I got the feeling that you had the feeling that something was missing. I’m still trying to get that crossover point where you go from atheist on God to agnostic on God. I’m still trying find where that happened.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: I’m not sure I can characterize it in a continuum that way, but let me tell you how I experienced it. There was a long period, while this was going on, I felt that I was carrying multiple philosophies in my head.
It’s like in my story “The Musician,” where my character, Jacob Schneider, has two possible realities and he doesn’t know which one is true. And so he is going along, taking only those necessary actions to fulfill that which is immediately before him. Not knowing whether what is going on is, in fact, a conspiracy against him, or, in fact, whether he is going through some sort of psychological episode which is presenting to him something which isn’t real.
And this is very much a sort of story which is very, very important to me, the story of psychological tension where you don’t know what reality is. It’s a very Philip K. Dick-ian type of thing. Which is one of the reasons why I’ve read and admired and enjoyed Philip K. Dick so much.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Same here.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: I think that he must have had something akin to my experience, at some point, to put him in this state of mind.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: I agree.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: And Robert Anton Wilson, when he talks about his Large Rabbit experience – which I’m sure, he’s talking about fancifully but nonetheless
Heinlein, in his story “They,” has a character who is being treated as if he’s a psychotic but nonetheless he believes that there is an actual conspiracy and world-changing going on around him, and of course at the end of the story the twist is that turns out to be true.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: I find that the most solipsistic vision in the history of literature.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: But it’s not solipsistic because in solipsism you’re creating your own nightmare. This is a nightmare which is being created by others.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: I’ll rephrase, emotional solipsism projected into a universe where all of the worst suspicions of the main character turn out to be true.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: That’s right.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: That’s more accurate.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Right.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Paranoid. It’s the greatest paranoid short story of all time?
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Yes. But what all these visions have is the tension of living inside a work of suspense fiction. Where you are living in a situation like a character in a plot where you are living in suspense — the definition of suspense being doubt of outcome of intent, where you do not know from where you are what the truth is. It’s living in a mystery story.
Okay. And I found myself living in a metaphysical mystery story in which there was more than one explanation of what was going on and I was carrying them all in my head simultaneously, taking those action only which were immediately before me, while trying to get more data and trying to figure out which of the things being presented to me was true.
Now I would say that that, carrying more than one paradigm in my mind and running them as simultaneous programs as if I were a computer with compartmentalization of programs running in different sections, that I would call my agnostic period.
BRAD LINAWEAVER: But that is the answer to my question. That is where you were. To that extent you were agnostic.
That’s a more unusual form of agnosticism than mine and I know that mine is not run-of-the-mill common.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Right. When I was an atheist I was running one paradigm. When I became an agnostic I was running multiple paradigms. And when I got to the point where I was a convinced theist, I was back to one paradigm again.
And that is where I think we should take this up in the next section, because we talked about how you got from atheist to agnostic. In the next section I want to talk about your journey from agnostic to your experience.
J. NEIL SCHULMAN: Excellent!
BRAD LINAWEAVER: Thank you, Neil.
Next in I Met God — God Without Religion, Scripture, or Faith is Chapter III: Contact
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