(Some disjointed thoughts from reading The Belief Instinct, and Varieties of Religious Experience. Themes I have thought very much about in the past several years of my life and would like to return to in a better essay eventually).
It seems to me that to definitively answer the question of God (as people on both sides of the debate claim they can) would be to fundamentally change human society in a profound and negative way. It is the question, the lack of surety, and the struggle to attain faith (in religion or science or some combination of the two) which keeps us moving forward. Even if we could answer the question through some scientific “proof”, I doubt (based on some very interesting research presented in The Belief Instinct by Jesse Bering) that most humans on the planet would accept it as evidence as anything much – because we are hardwired with (or at least psychologically driven by) a theory of mind which projects sentience and motivation everywhere, not least of which is the universe.
Whether that theory-of-mind-brain was created by intelligent design, or is part of a great cosmic consciousness, however, is the part where everything gets hung up. Because some people will argue that it’s evidence of a supreme energy, and others will stand on the side of random chance and evolution.
I know what my side is, secular humanist that I am, but it isn’t without a little doubt and wonder. And it definitely isn’t without my own profound experiences that I would describe as spiritually-inspired.
In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James collects a series of lectures delivered in 1901 and sets out to discuss the psychological realm of the reglious experience – unseen visitation, the healing or lifting of the melancholy mind, conversion, and saintliness among other topics. His aim is not to attack religion with science, but rather to use these events as an avenue through which to explore them as part of human psychological experience. There is no question posed here about whether God exists, at least not overtly, for that is irrelevant to the question of whether experiences perceived to be divine manifest themselves in individuals, and the answer to that is a most obvious yes. Our literature, poetry, and folk tales are full of such encounters, and they inform so much of our art and music – it would be strange to deny the role that “revelation” has played in our human culture.
And yet that is what the fundie-atheists would have us do – dismiss a whole realm of human experience due to its illusory and backwards nature. According to Richard Dawkins, we shouldn’t even be allowed to ask the question of the meaning of life:
If you happen to be religious, you think that’s a meaningful question. But the mere fact that you can phrase it as an English sentence doesn’t mean it deserves an answer. Those of us who don’t believe in a god will say that is as illegitimate as the question, why are unicorns hollow? It just shouldn’t be put. It’s not a proper question to put. It doesn’t deserve an answer.
(as quoted in The Belief Instinct).
Not unlike the brimstone religion which demands unquestioning adherence to God-belief, Dawkins threatens the rest of us as being perceived as quite silly should we dare to wonder even one time about our own purpose – how we fit into an increasingly chaotic world, and what the quotients of a meaningful life might actually be. In the case of James, I can imagine that Dawkins would dismiss him quite readily as not being hard enough on those proclaiming divine experience. For James does not take a scalpel to the writings and thoughts of others, but instead accepts these moments and revelations as the life-changing events they were. He does not belittle the psychology of those – such as Tolstoy – who felt very strongly that without religious revelation they might have become suicides or worse. Likewise, he does not claim that these experiences are proof of anything except to those individuals who experience revelation, conversion, the healing of the sick soul.
Though I have sometimes described myself as an atheist, I have to admit two things:
- I don’t have a definitive position on this. I am pretty sure it’s all just random chance and evolution, but that is all – I can’t prove it either way.
- I have had transcendant (and possibly demonic depending who you talk to) experience, I have a living (walking, breathing) guardian angel, and I have deeply felt the sublime on more than one occasion. I believe deeply in each of these things, but none of them has lead me to a belief in God – not in the all-seeing creator or the cosmic energy formulation that seems so popular at the moment.
If we read James, we will discover how encounters with the spiritual serve a particular balm to those sick souls in need of assistance. If we read Bering, we will see how the development of the theory of mind assisted our evolutionary ability to survive and adapt as a species. Neither of these things precludes the existence of God, though they do provide explanations of why we might have developed particular thinking patterns in support of our own survival.
I find myself wondering though about how much it matters – this whole existence of God question. Either transcendant experience comes from God, or it comes from inside and around us – but ultimately it does the same thing which is to expand our egos to connect with the greater creation inside of which we exist. Whether that happens in dramatic or small ways isn’t important – so much as the fact that it happens for us at all – the feeling of connection and belonging being paramount to our psychic survival in what is a life of difficult work (and random cruelty). And faith? Well you can have faith that God is the architect of it all and gain your comfort in that. Or you can have faith that you aren’t supposed to know and leave it there. Which means that even atheists can have faith, as can existentialists. A lack of faith heaves us up on to the plains of fundamentalism – as bloody and arid a place as anything.
You know that famous answer in the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when the character asks the mega-computer Deep Thought, for the Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything? 7.5 million years later the computer returns the answer 42. Explanation being that the Ultimate Question itself is the unkown variable.
As wittily clever as that scene is, it’s a passage which has always stuck with me. That as soon as we find an answer, we realize the inadequacy of our question – not to mention the restricted understanding from which we base it.
I started above by saying that to remove the question about God from society would surely impact us in negative ways – though I must also acknowledge that the question of God has brought us to misery beyond belief. Perhaps that is just the self-correcting nature of the human-population at work, or perhaps all those holy wars and battles are a problem of too-little faith compounded with diminishing resources. Certainly in the post-modern world we mix our religious and economic motivations up to such a degree that they are impossible to extract from one another. All of that acknowledged, I can’t envisage a world without doubt. I can’t envisage a world without wonder. For it is where belief chafes against experience that we get so much of our fantastic philosophy, literature, and art. What world would we live in if this question and our so-called divine experiences didn’t exist?