Brief Bio

John G. Messerly PhD was a member of the faculty of both the philosophy and computer science departments for many years at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of books on ethics, evolutionary philosophy, philosophy of human nature and the meaning of life, as well as over a hundred articles on philosophical, psychological, social, political, and transhumanist themes. His published work has appeared in Salon, Scientia Salon, Humanity+ Magazine, The Cambridge Companion to Piaget, Communications of the ACM, ACM SIGCAS Computers and Society, The Modern Schoolman, Southwest Philosophy Review, Philosophical Studies, The Review of Metaphysics, International Philosophical Quarterly, and the online magazine of The Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, among others.

Dr. Messerly is an Affiliate Member of the Evolution, Complexity, and Cognition Group (localized at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel), and an affiliate scholar of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies. He is currently interested in how technological and cosmic evolution shed light on existential questions about death and the meaning in life. His most recent books are: The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives (2013), and Philosophical Ethics: Theory and Practice (2015).

10 thoughts on “Brief Bio

  1. Dear Sir,

    I read your piece on, and though I agree with the evidence you present generally – more highly educated people tend to describe themselves as less “religious”. But I must ask: What are you describing as religious, as opposed to non-religious types of belief? The question isn’t trivial, given that some so-called religions might fail to match popular definitions of religious belief (e.g., Buddhism, at least in the forms that don’t involve a bunch of gods and mythology). Highly educated people may not believe in God, but believe in things that are even less likely, like workable socialism. On this point, you might be interested in the problem of definition as presented by William Cavanaugh in his talks on religious violence.

    As for the hubris of a philosopher attacking the findings of science as they pertain to religious belief, I partly disagree. The scientist likely has a better knowledge of the empirical evidence and theories that are tested in his field. But often in my experience, scientists don’t understand basic epistemology, and so believe that science has proved something that empirical study of any kind could never prove (the non-existence of free will, of God, etc.).

    If a philosopher of theologian wants to claim to have scientific evidence for, e.g. divine creation, then by all means, he is out of his depths. But if the argument is more rational than empirical (and thus, non-scientific), he may or may not have a point. That is, rationality is not limited to scientific inquiry.

    Please do not hesitate to answer, or to quote our correspondence as you wish.

    All the best,

  2. I thought that was a fine article in Salon. There are two points that I rarely see raised in religious discussions. You at least touched on one of them when you mentioned that religion is generally determined by accident of birth. If you are born to Hindu parents in Delhi, or to Jewish parents in Tel Aviv, guess which religion you grow up to embrace?

    I generally ask, why, out of the millions of old religious texts, do people pull one out of the heap and declare it to be the one-and-only center of the universe? The fact that your parents, and the community you grew up in, programmed it into your head is one answer, for sure. You touched on that, as I said. But there is another reason.

    For centuries our ancestors either professed the local religion or they got a visit from the king’s men. And the king’s men carried swords, sir. Heretics were burned. Backsliders were punished in other ways. The nightmare of those days shaped our modern minds. We cannot simply say “that was then” and go blithely on our way. The echoes of the tortured are with us. We have this … tendency, not to oppose religion too much. It’s bad form, somehow.

    Christopher Hitchens was right when he said the modern churches can play pop songs and get as cutesy and touchy-feely as they want. We remember how they were when they had no constraints upon them at all.

  3. I pulled your article “Religion’s smart-people problem…” on Slate off of their Twitter site and felt it was a good enough short treatment to send to others and cause enough to want to investigate your other writings. But it seemed to (I hope I’m wrong but I doubt it) contain a common error of intellectual laziness and lack of due diligence of most of today’s “skeptics” in it’s lumping of alien abduction in with other, more thoroughly and concretely discredited things such as astrology. I was myself, at first, skeptical – even having had several UFO sightings of my own, prior – but hearing Budd Hopkins speak made me reconsider and 25 years of reading on the subject has convinced me it has and is happening. I think so-called scientists poo-poo it because it is paradigm shifting and, like the priests of old, it takes away their power to construct our world for us. It is revolutionary, and presents the kind of threat Copernicus and Galileo did to the powers of their day. I strongly believe science is the best tool at mankind’s disposal but acknowledge it is wielded by men, who are flawed, as you yourself describe in the article I herein commented on. There is evidence of a kind which we use daily in courts of law which support alien abduction. Since I don’t expect you to believe me I would steer you toward three others, one deceased, two still available to you to actually speak with at length in the academic world you write of in the Slate article. The works of John Mack, deceased, formerly of Harvard University would be a good place to start. I believe others who worked with him are still carrying on in some capacity. And Professor David Jacobs of Temple University, probably the leading academic authority on the subject. They might also make you privy to knowledge with has not been released to the general public out of necessity in order to properly investigate the phenomenon. If your doubts extend to UFOs I would suggest a good starting point would be Richard Dolan’s latest book, UFOs for the 21st Century Mind. Here you would benefit from an academic (Oxford) who has studied the issue intensely for over 20 years and has had access to sources within government you may not have had the benefit of speaking with in detail on these subjects. Certainly, whether you consider UFOs to be worthy of serious consideration and due diligence, our government does, and there is ample and unquestionable proof of that. I don’t know why the US government would spend 67 years involved in it and give the most sensitive information about it a higher security clearance than that assigned the creation of the atomic bomb, 8 levels above the clearance of the President of the United States, if there were nothing to the phenomenon. That’s just common sense. Anyway, otherwise a very good treatment of the God/gods subject which I’ll be passing along to others in the future. And I look forward to reading your other writings. No one knows it all. It would be difficult for you to have become an expert on UFOs and alien abduction and also accomplish the other things you’ve done in your career. But I encourage you to practice due diligence on this very important subject and consult those in academia who have done just that, starting with Mack, Jacobs and Dolan. You said in the article a person’s belief in a god or religion can affect others. I would say the same to you about your casual and I think, badly founded, dismissal of alien abduction. There are many thousands of persons wrestling with this trauma in their everyday lives here and around the globe. Many are academics themselves. To have good, thoughtful people of otherwise creditable academic background casually wave off their trauma is only further cause for pain and difficulty in their lives. It affects them psychologically and in their social interactions. Thus I encourage you to better, more sincerely, and more thoroughly investigate the phenomenon before lumping it in with now thoroughly discredited notions such as astrology. Thank you for your Salon article and your time reading and considering this email.


    Pat Downer

  4. The percentage – 7% – of religious members in the National Academy of the Sciences, is about the same as the number of evangelical believers in the USA, according to George Barna polls. One of the great religions is the believers in the Christ who allegedly died for our sins, rose from the dead, and was seen by many witnesses. It is amazing how people in so many non-Jewish nations have humbled themselves to declaring this Jew to be the ultimate king of the whole universe. Yet that same teacher said that the path would be narrow with few people on it who find life, while the road to destruction would be broad with many on it. People who convert from one religion to another with no coercion, and even face coercion to not do so, are normally people converting to faith in this Christ, not the other way around.

    In general, religions are based on lack of evidence, superstitions, irrationality, cultural pride, wishful thinking, and tradition. Most scholars who are religious embrace some form of theism, especially Christianity, rarely religions that claim, for instance, that theJapanese are the superior race, forms of animism, or religions that put great faith in a priesthood to make predictions and sacrifice people to volcanoes. There are scholars who come to faith in Christ later in life, about the same proportion as non-scholars who come to faith in Christ later in life. Guillaume Bignon and Mary Poplin are two examples.

    Nearly every young earth creationist believes in the type of evolutionary science that might be involved in developing and using improved types of flu vaccines. They call it micro-evolution, and have no problem with it. In fact, some even believe in a much faster evolutionary impact than regular scientists, when they believe that in 6,000 years since Noah’s Flood, for instance, so many different types of canines and felines evolved from one tiny set of prototype canines and felines on the Ark.

    You must remember, that most Christians today are Gentiles, far removed from the culture of the early Hebrews who wrote and understood Genesis. Just as we wouldn’t expect modern Europeans to understand sayings and symbols from Jesus’ day without a lot of historical and cultural background and education, we can’t expect most Christians today to be able to comprehend the background and Hebrew language of Genesis. The problem is that modern Gentile Christians aren’t aware of their own ignorance and limitations when it comes to reading ancient texts, so they continue in ignorant assumptions based on modern mindsets and cues.

    We need scholars. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. We need love based on knowledge and wisdom, and we need knowledge based on humility and love. Clark PInnock’s book Reason Enough is one I recommend. Beyond that, we should try reading more and more books about the Christianity of people in the developing world and see how different it is from what people assume in the West.

  5. I just read “Religion’s smart-people problem: The shaky intellectual foundations of absolute faith.” I rather doubt that that title was your own idea- Salon has been known to stick clickbait titles onto otherwise serious articles. I enjoyed it greatly, and I’m writing to share something that your article evoked in my own experience. You wrote:
    “Among the intelligentsia it is common and widespread to find individuals who lost childhood religious beliefs as their education in philosophy and the sciences advanced. By contrast, it is almost unheard of to find disbelievers in youth who came to belief as their education progressed. This asymmetry is significant; advancing education is detrimental to religious belief. This suggest another part of the explanation for religious belief—scientific illiteracy.”
    You’re talking about my former father-in-law, Edmund S. Miksch, now deceased. He was a Harvard Ph.D in physics, a metallurgical engineer for Alcoa, and a holder of several U.S. Patents. He came to his religion- a particularly shrill and unsophisticated version of born-again evangelicalism- as an adult, through his relationship with his wife, Mary Frances Hall (also now deceased). Ed did not grow up in any sort of religious household, but Mary Frances did. She, like me, was a PeeKay (“P.K.” refers to the informal fraternity of “Preacher’s Kids”), and the daughter of a very straight-laced Presbyterian minister. In contrast to the rest of her family, who continued going to church in a genteel fashion, Mary Frances developed the addictive habit of watching televangelists like Jack Van Impe and Jim Baker and Pat Robertson, and came to believe that she could be “healed” by placing her hands upon the TV screen, and that Jesus helped her find the car keys, and that President Clinton was the “man of lawlessness” prophesied in Revelations, and that these were the End Of Days. In short, I can describe, in great detail, the “almost unheard of” case of a very intelligent, rational man, falling all the way under the spell of the most transparently ridiculous, bigoted, and superstitious of religious ideologies. My experience with these people has given me some insight into an aspect of this kind of religious thought to which you may need to give additional consideration.
    You are perfectly correct that “smart persons are good at defending ideas that they originally believed for non-smart reasons.” Ed’s affection for his wife led him into wanting to participate in this part of her life, and it became foundational to their relationship, their marriage, and their shared identity, and thus it became essential to his own identity, self-image, and psychological well-being. That’s the “why” of it. What occurred to me as “missing” in your article is the “how” of it.
    “Absolute Faith,” as Salon’s title put it, does not behave like other ideas. It isn’t a hypothesis subject to scrutiny. There are many kinds of ideas are ones that we might accept or reject based upon evidence or argument, like alternative accounts of what happened on the evening of September 23rd, 2014, or whether Kepler or Einstein’s math better explains the orbits of planets, but religious ideas simply refuse to play in this arena. An epistemologist might say that religious ideas (of the sort we’re talking about) interfere with the “Frame problem” in a particular way. They don’t address the issue of “what’s the correct thing to think about?” but they alter the rules of “what’s the correct WAY to think about things in the first place?”
    Faith-ideas have a component of “demand” at their core that other (falsifiable) ideas don’t. I think that this might be the defining characteristic of such ideas, and that it is essential to their very nature. Part of what these ideas are is their insistence that they have a unique and exclusive claim upon the truth of themselves in regards to everything else in the universe, and that this claim must override any other such claim, including our own senses and reason. The reasoning behind this (if any reasoning is required at all, and in the strongest possible case, it really isn’t) is that we are limited, fallible, and easily deceived, and we know ourselves to be so… but the source of these ideas is not fallible or limited in any way. The correctness of faith comes not from our assessment of it, but from the other end- the absolute, infinite, infallible perfection of the divine source of these ideas.
    You wrote: “Another problem is that fideism—basing one’s beliefs exclusively on faith—makes belief arbitrary, leaving no way to distinguish one religious belief from another. Fideism allows no reason to favor your preferred beliefs or superstitions over others. If I must accept your beliefs without evidence, then you must accept mine, no matter what absurdity I believe in. But is belief without reason and evidence worthy of rational beings?”
    This argument presumes a kind of egalitarian relationship between competing ideas, each equally worthy of consideration, the “best” of which will rise to prominence in the fair marketplace of ideas. We’ve seen this same kind of argument played out in the public sphere with Bertrand Russell’s “5 minute hypothesis” and the satirical theisms of the “Invisible Pink Unicorn” and the “Flying Spaghetti Monster.” But in the lives of the people who are in the grip of such things, Faith ideas don’t play that way. A strong Fide-ist such as Mary Frances would reject the terms of this contest in toto. Rationality itself, and our status as rational beings, is at best a secondary concern. Her response would be “No, I do not need to ‘accept your ideas no matter how absurd,’ because it is a basic and fundamental truth of reality that I AM RIGHT about this and YOU ARE WRONG, and this is no mere difference of opinion. The truth and worthiness of my perspective does not come from my assessment of my faith, it is GOD’s own truth, which transcends this entire discussion. What you fail to realize is that you are drowning in falsehood and confusion, and I am (in accordance with GOD’s wishes) throwing you a life preserver- perhaps the only one you’re going to get- and if you don’t get on board with this, you are simply lost.”
    Some of the Pastafarians play this role pretty convincingly, as well. I even came up with my own version of such a thing: Consider the case of “Malicaieh Johnson,” who knows, beyond any kind of certainty that you or I have ever even considered, the absolute truth of a revelation he’s received. The entirety of what we know of as reality is “food” for a God, who created it as food, because He/She/It is “hungry,” in some divine sense. All conscience, knowledge, wisdom, and life- whatever it is we see when we become conscious of “other minds,” or the experience of our own- is spiritual energy that is systematically consumed by The Great Devourer, and when it gets “eaten,” it vanishes from the universe completely, into the belly of the God. But not only does it go away, all traces of it that it ever made in the world also magically vanish, and the whole of reality is re-written around it such that it never existed in the first place, in the fashion of “It’s a wonderful life.” So, perhaps it was the case that fifteen minutes ago, I had a twin brother named Ivan, and of course we’ve known each other our whole lives, and all the details of his personal mannerisms, and insights about his marriage to Sonja, and the trouble he’s had with his jerk of a boss, and the little dance his dog Pete does when he has to go out, were all prominent in my world. But ten minutes ago, he was Devoured like a Dorito. Now I live in a universe in which he never was, and although I may be poorer for it, I’m none the wiser about it. Malicaieh, however, can “see” both realities, and the telltale spiritual marks of infinitely many others, but only he can “see” them, and has no way of proving any of it. In fact, it is by definition “unprovable,” since part of his insight is that reality itself is malleable. Furthermore, he knows that this sounds like insanity to everyone else who cannot see the truth of it, and perhaps he may even come to believe that he is insane, or has learned to hide any behaviors that would be seen by others as disruptive, but none of that takes away from the fact that he knows that this is in fact happening in the world as he experiences it, and it’s not merely something that he’s chosen to “believe.”
    The only difference between thought experiments like this and the perspective of Mary Frances is that she was perfectly serious about it, and people like her remain a genuine force to be contended with in this world. Faith struts around the marketplace of ideas like a schoolyard bully, using whatever unfair forces or advantages it can muster to meet its own selfish goals. It cheats. It does not want a fair fight. It plays dirty, because it must get its own way, and the terms of discussion, indeed, the nature of reality itself as it’s experienced by those who live in faith, will bend to these demands. I’m afraid the real tragedy of this whole situation is that it’s the worst case in which “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can pretend no other office than to serve them.”
    Yes, I noticed you’re a Hume guy.

  6. As a psychologist, philosopher, and psychoanalyst, I found your Salon article interesting but philosophically weak. For instance, you make the following statements without providing any support of those statements (or mention of any perspective unsupportive of your perspective):

    “Genes and environment explain human beliefs and behaviors.”
    “The near universal appeal of religious belief suggests a biological component to religious beliefs and practices.”

    In the following statement you draw a completely unwarranted conclusion regarding the etiology of gods and their effect upon the world. In effect, you just make up a conclusion and pontificate that it is correct.

    “. . . intelligence is an adaptation that aids survival. Yet it also forms causal narratives for natural occurrences and postulates the existence of other minds. Thus the idea of hidden Gods explaining natural events was born.”

    In the following statement you combine a variety of activities which you mandate are both “weird” and “completely irrational.” In spite of the fact that strong empirical data has been experimentally obtained at statistically significant levels in ESP experiments at Duke and Princeton, you associate telekinesis and telepathy with astrology and fortunetelling. Even if you don’t want to accept as valid the experimental findings of researchers at Duke and Princeton, its extremely unsavory to lump together, and then derogate, those schools of thought which have some scientific support with other schools of thought which have little or no scientific support. You wrote:

    “People believe many weird things that are completely irrational—astrology, fortunetelling, alien abductions, telekinesis and mind reading.”

    You also draw a conclusion as to the etiology of people’s beliefs. Again, without providing any support for your point of view you then pontificate that your explanation is the “best” explaining for people’s beliefs. You wrote:

    “In general, people don’t want to know; they want to believe. This best summarizes why people tend to believe.”

    There were other aspects of your article which I found psychologically and psychoanalytically weak but, since you are a philosopher, I have restricted my response to only your philosophically unsupported statements. In short you have drawn many conclusions that you fail to support which, in my opinion, weakens your arguments.

  7. If you read Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World you will know why alien abductions stories are nonsense.

  8. With all due respect, thenSalon piece is more of the same. Atheists and secular humanists continue to attempt, in vain, to construct rational explanations for something they have never experienced firsthand: religious faith and devotion. Any such explanation based entirely on observation of external factors is bound to be flawed as it fails to consider the single most important facet of faith: the experience of the adherent. Broadly, the assertion that more educated people are less religious is flawed. Religion, by its nature, appeals to humility. The poor and uneducated tend to be more humble. Demographic groups already predisposed against humility tend to be more materialistic and, as such, substitute learning and ambition for spiritual satisfaction. on the subject of Western Europe vs the U.S. and the welfare state, the conclusion is strained. History suggests a very different conclusion. Europe has historically been the site of bloody religious wars and clashes, all of them derivations of tribal wars in which religious belief is co-opted to assert divine authority. That environment is what gave rise to the exodus of believers who emigrated to the Americas. If that history left a bad taste among European Cultures, those who emigrated to the Americas brought with them quite the opposite: an appreciation that here, unlike there, faith could be practiced purely, without imperial corruption and bloodshed. Nice try, though. But in the future try not to project one field of scholarship onto another broad field of study and assume that it provides an all encompassing understanding. It doesn’t.

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