Our Varied Experiences of the Same Universe

aweI’d like to share a comment made by Persto on a much commented post from Nate’s Finding Truth blog that struck a chord with me:

“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! ūüėČ ¬†). ¬†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 Рbased 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.

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You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling

I’d like to close out a series of posts about “knowing in the heart” that I blogged about in the following posts:

In the first of that series I mentioned that while my main reasons for converting from Judaism to Christianity were what I perceived to be strong evidence of it‚Äôs truth, there was a strong feeling in my gut as well that it was true. ¬†It’s been about 22 years since then, but there are a few things I remember very clearly about the feelings that I had.

As I mentioned before, in my high school years and freshman year of college before I became a Christian I was not religious, but thoughts about meaning and purpose did come into my head sometimes. ¬†When I finally decided that Christianity was the truth and decided to commit myself to it I finally felt like I had the answers to purpose, meaning, morality, and simply how to live my life. ¬†The amount of comfort and peace that came from this fulfillment of the desire for certainty about the big questions was actually quite intense. This was a very real feeling for me and back then it was clear confirmation for me that what I had found was true. ¬†What I realize now is that the feeling in the gut of truth that I had was mainly from the thought that I had the answers to the ultimate questions of life – who wouldn’t be absolutely ecstatic over that!! ¬†I am fully convinced however that if I had converted to a different religion (e.g. Islam, Baha’ism, Mormonism, Taoism, Odinism, etc.) the feelings would have been the same because all religions offer this same certainty (to differing degrees) on the answers to the big questions of life. ¬†So in the end this could not be a confirmation of truth. I believe that¬†this is a big part of the “know it in the heart” that people of many worldviews seem to express.

Another thing that comes up in discussions of religious (definitely Christian) experience is the “relationship”. ¬†I fully believed that Christianity was true in my first year of belief, but no matter what I did or didn’t do that relationship never materialized. ¬†I truly believed the mantra “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” and I really believed that over time that experience would come to me, but it never showed up, even during the months that I was so sure of what I believed. ¬†Don’t get me wrong – I prayed, read my bible, fellowshipped with several different Christian groups (Campus Crusade, Great Commission Ministries, as well as 2 off campus Messianic Jewish congregations), but although I always witnessed to others about the fact that Christianity is about a relationship with God, I always wondered why I never quite experienced that aspect. ¬†Perhaps I was expecting it to be like the relationships that I was used to in “real” life, but I still don’t understand why you would use the same word when it is actually very different.

As time went on the doubts that I had had before converting came back, more problems within the bible as well as the worldview cropped up, and the hiddenness of this God I was seeking kept nagging at me. ¬†I kept this up for 4 years because deep down I kept thinking that my prayers would be answered. ¬†I prayed the doubter’s prayer (“Lord I believe, help me overcome my unbelief”) so many times, but the doubts kept mounting until I realized that the positives I had seen in the worldview previously were simply outweighed by all of the negatives that had added up.

There was a lot more I wanted to write about other sources of that “know it in the heart” feeling, but I think I have written enough on this for now. ¬†Maybe I’ll come back to this if I ever see a need to. ¬†For now I’m ending this series. ¬†I keep writing so much more than I think I will. ¬†I originally saw this blog as lasting at most a month. ¬†I cannot predict it, but as long as I can find the time I can see this blog lasting quite a bit longer now.

Veridical – what does that mean?

A term that shows up often in discussions about religious experience is veridical. googling “define veridical” results in: “truthful” and “coinciding with reality”, which matches with my understanding of the word. ¬†For example, if Jesus truly was resurrected in reality then the experience of the disciples seeing him would be called veridical (and actually it would be considered veridical if he was bodily or spiritually resurrected as long as one of those things truly happened). ¬†Another example: if a Muslim claims that Allah spoke to them, and in reality Allah exists (either naturally or supernaturally) and did truly speak to them then it would be called a veridical experience.

This is my understanding of the word.  If anyone knows better please let me know.

Relating this back to my previous 2 posts, I want to clarify that I was not making a statement about whether or not these heartfelt feelings are veridical. ¬†It is certainly possible that any and even all of these heartfelt experiences are veridcal. ¬†While I don’t believe contradictory conclusions from these experiences could all be correct (remember my foundational belief in deductive reasoning or logic), it could still be true that some of the conclusions spreading across all the different religious experiences could have a basis in real experiences with the hidden realm.

But of course if you have been reading my other posts you know that I do admit to leaning toward naturalistic conclusions but nowhere near the certainty of a lot of my other beliefs about reality. ¬†It’s hard to put a percent on it but maybe in the 50’s if it helps clarify my stance. ¬†So my hunch is that these experiences are not veridical. ¬†But again this is not the conclusion that I am stating with any high level of certainty and I just want to make it clear that that is not at all what I was trying to state in my previous posts.

The point I want to make very clear is that I do not believe the method of putting our heartfelt feelings above evidence is the proper way to find out what is objectively true. ¬†While one could certainly get lucky and get things right that way, given that there are so many people who express these kinds of heartfelt convictions that contradict each other it is clear that many (and possibly all) of these people are wrong about at least parts of their conclusions. ¬†The law of non-contradiction forces us to that conclusion. ¬†Now you could certainly try and believe that there aren’t really that many people of other religions who express this kind of feeling. ¬†Or maybe you believe that even if they do it isn’t quite the same as your feeling. ¬†But I’ve both talked to and seen enough people of several different persuasions talk about their experiences so that I can no longer be honest with myself and use those kinds of justifications.

In my next post I’ll give a few examples of the people I have spoken with in different religions.