“I just want you to know that it is possible to think and to experience the universe, and ourselves as a part of it, in both religious and naturalistic ways. For those who sometimes experience life religiously, it can be entirely rational to form beliefs reflecting that mode of experience. At the same time it is equally rational for those who do not participate in the field of religious experience not to hold such beliefs, and to assume that these experiences are simply projections of our human desires and ideals. In other words, we are facing an issue of fact which is at present veiled in ambiguity, so that both belief and disbelief at present carry with them the risk of profound error. The believer risks the possibility of being self-deceived and the non-believer risks shutting out the most valuable of all realities. Given this choice, William James would urge, and surely with reason and evidence, that we have the right to choose for ourselves. People are therefore justified in holding beliefs that are grounded either wholly in their own religious experience or in the experience of the historical tradition to which they belong, this being in turn confirmed by their own much slighter range and intensity of religious experience. It seems that we stand, as finite and ignorant beings, in a universe that both invites religious belief and yet holds over us the possibility that this invitation may be a deception.”
This comment didn’t only strike a chord with me because of it’s eloquence (Persto’s writing style is always impressively eloquent – I could never pull off using the phrase “veiled in ambiguity” like he does so smoothly! 😉 ). It struck me because it describes so well how I view these important deep questions of life that I ponder and write about on my blog.
When I was a believer I indeed pondered whether or not I was self-deceived, and now as an implicit atheist / agnostic I still ponder that same question – I indeed sense the risk of “shutting out the most valuable of all realities”. Confirmation bias as well as a whole host of other cognitive biases are sticky things no matter what worldviews I’ve held in my lifetime. I’ve had them as a young Jewish boy, as a Christian, and still have them as an implicit atheist.
The only thing I can do is stay true to what I consciously conclude at the moment I am in – based on my experiences, reason and analysis of whatever evidence I can gather. Some (perhaps most) of my beliefs and stances may not be strongly conclusive for me, but I do my best to look at the whole picture and form my conclusions from all of that.
I cannot disprove the veridicality of religious experiences of my friends and others that I know, because I have not walked in their shoes and have not had their experiences, nor do I have the genetic makeup that they have. I hope others can view my own conclusions through the same kind of respectful lens. While I try my best given my own experiences to determine what is real, and focus on objective methods for determining what truly is real, there is always the knowledge for me that these and all other methods never lead to complete certainty. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have and won’t express strong opinions regarding my own conclusions, but they all stand along a continuum of relative certainty levels, with me keenly and sometimes sadly being aware of the possibility that I could be wrong.
I don’t believe as some religious people say that if you have doubts then you may as well stay on the side of a particular belief system. I feel much more true to myself as a possibilian rather than forcing myself into any particular religious belief. In this state I can still stand in awe and wonder of the universe and it’s vastness as well as the complicated mystery of our consciousness which stands right before our very eyes yet seems so elusive to describe.
In future posts I hope to describe a little more of my current stance regarding religion.