The Ways of Belief: How people understand the Divine.
Having established the subjective nature of my belief in God and its genesis in the perception of feeling a “connection with the Divine”, it is appropriate to look a little bit closer at this and how it might play out in the way that people believe, or don’t believe in a God. It is my intention here to put forward a psychological theory of belief, that could be falsifiable, should anybody wish to do so.
When I talk about having a connection to the Divine, I am talking about a feeling, hunch, or sensation of somehow being connected to an entity, being or force that is greater than one’s self. It may be considered to be transcendent of our universe, effectively identical to it, or even an emergent property of it, but in each case the feeling is of a being that is of an infinite order of magnitude greater than us, or one that seems thus, given our limited perspective.
It is clear that not all people feel this connection and it is clear that many of those who don’t perceive it also fail to understand it, or the effect that such a perceived connection might have on a person. However, it is not my intention or desire to debate that such a connection exists. I feel it and so do billions of others while literature, poetry and culture are replete with references to it. As such, while doubters may not understand the experience and many, including some of those who feel the connection would deny that it represents any genuine link to anything resembling “the Divine”, debate regarding its existence seems little more than an invitation to counterproductive and potentially antagonistic, sophistry.
The most obvious conclusion to draw is that there are in fact two different kinds of people in the world: Those who feel a connection to the Divine at the core of their souls and those who don’t. Indeed, it might be tempting to call it a day here and simply say that one group are clearly the atheists, while the other are clearly the theists. Unfortunately, such simplicity quickly runs into difficulties when we consider the existence of agnostics, a group of people who resolutely aim to sit on the fence without going one way, or the other.
An initial solution to the problem posed by agnostics might be to speculate that these are people who feel the existence of God in some way, but not to the same strength as the person who declares themselves theist. This is certainly a possibility and it is almost certainly the case that the feelings of there being a God, which I experience as certitude, are experienced to a lesser degree by others. Indeed, they may exist on a continuum, progressing in strength from those who feel nothing on one side to people such as I on the other. Indeed, somewhere in the middle may be a group of people uncertain as to whether they do or not
However, I would like to suggest that there is more going on than just a simple variation in how strongly people feel this core belief. Instead, I believe that when we discuss belief in the existence of God, we are actually witnessing is a combination of personal feeling and acceptance of objective evidence to support such a belief. These factors are in turn further confounded by various cultural factors.
If we take an either ,or approach to both the acceptance of objective evidence for the existence of God and the personal sense of there being a God, we end up with four groups, as shown in the table below:
Connection / Accepts Objective Evidence
Disconnection/ Accepts Objective Evidence
Connection / Rejects Objective Evidence
Disconnection/ Rejects Objective Evidence
The Dichotomous Types
The Connection / Acceptor Theist
Most obviously, the Believer, who accepts the existence of objective evidence, can be identified as a theist of one sort or another. They are comfortable, having (incorrectly in my view), accepted that there is evidence outside of themselves that demonstrates God’s existence, while simultaneously having the subjective sense of connection to such a God reside within themselves. I’d suggest that in most cases these people will adopt a combination of the religious beliefs of the lands in which they live, but perhaps modified according to their own perceptions of God, even if this contradicts that which they have been taught.
The Disconnection / Rejecter Atheist
Similarly, atheists are easily identified as being those who reject any objective evidence and who don’t feel any subjective belief in God. While in societies that reject atheism, they might proclaim the existence of God, it will only be because of pragmatic reasons that relate to the potential penalties attached to expressing their genuine beliefs. Even within such a society, they can be expected to do their best to break free of the constraints and limits of religious thought and dogma at every juncture.
The Spiritually Trapped and Believers in Moscow
The next two groups are perhaps the most interesting, as the personal experiences of both of these groups are unlikely to be entirely straightforward, or what we would normally expect.
The Connection / Rejecter Agnostic
The first of these that I’ll look at, are the people who have a core belief in the existence of God, but don’t see any objective evidence for the existence of such a being. It is here that I believe the majority of those describing themselves as agnostic reside. Remember that an agnostic is a person who asserts that they do not believe that there is sufficient evidence for the existence of God to be conclusively established one way or the other. Accordingly, they sit on the fence, refraining from committing to either camp.
On the other hand, I would like to suggest that most agnostics are people trapped within the contradiction of internal belief vs a lack of external evidence. The contradiction has arisen because we live in a society that places supremacy on the objective, to the expense of the subjective viewpoint.
Accordingly, I believe that many agnostics are people who have looked around the world and found no objective evidence for the existence of God and who are therefore unable to declare themselves as theists of one sort or another. The question then becomes why they don’t just declare themselves atheist? The answer of course lies in the fact that despite their rejection of the objective, they still have the sense of a subjective connection to the Divine. As such, calling themselves, atheist is something that that they cannot do so while still being honest to themselves.
Effectively, they are blocked from advancing spiritually, as they like nearly everyone in our modern world have been indoctrinated to believe that it is only the objective that counts, not the subjective. Until they are able to acknowledge the seeming contradiction that resides within and acknowledge the validity of their subjective belief in God, and begin exploration of the Divine within, they are doomed to remain stuck, unable to discover the spiritual path that they need to follow in order to achieve a personal sense of peace and harmony.
The role of mysticism
Astute readers will note that this is how I described my own experience of God. Indeed, there is nothing that prohibits mystics from freely recognising that there is no objective evidence for God’s existence. But instead of stagnating, mystics recognise that the subjective viewpoint is superior to the objective, when it comes to issues relating to the nature and existence of God. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but instead part of a greater plan that we can only discover and understand on our own. Just as I and other mystics have journeyed inwards in search of spiritual truth, so too does the Connection / Rejecter agnostic need to throw of the chains of their false attachment to the objective in order to immerse themselves in the Divine Mind that resides within, there to find Enlightenment.
The Disconnection / Acceptor Theist
This category of belief revolves around those who don’t feel any personal subjective connection to God, but still believe in God. At first, many people are likely to do something of a double take at this concept. How could anyone believe in God without really “believing” in God after all, as might be supposed from not having a sense of connection to God? The answer of course is that this group of people believes in God, because it is what they have been taught by those around them. In other words, they believe in God in much the same way as most people believe in Russia. They’ve never been there, they never will go there and feel no affinity for the place, but they believe it exists because other people claim to have been there and everyone agrees that Russia does in fact exist. Indeed, just as a person believes that if they get on a particular plane they’ll end up in Russia, so to can this sort of person believe that if they die in a particular manner or way, they’ll end up in either Heaven, or Hell.
Like the Connection / Rejecter agnostic, I can see a great potential for people within this group to be conflicted. Because they don’t experience a personal connection to the Divine, they are likely to simply accept whatever belief system they have foisted upon them at a young age. Ultimately, education and life experience will see many become atheist as they realise that there is no objective evidence for God’s existence after all. However, at the very least they are likely to experience their belief as something alien to them and something with which they don’t have any real personal connection; much like Russia really.
Even more concerning, is the possibility that these people could end up believing anything. Because their belief is based on what others say, with no personal connection to the Divine, there is no internal compass to tell them when a belief is outlandish, or likely to go against the ultimate will of the Divine they claim to represent. This is because, while it is certainly the case that having a personal connection to the Divine is not proof against engaging in evil behaviour, and could just inflate one’s ego, I would argue that a sense of connection to a universally loving and accepting sense of truth is less likely to produce that outcome.
Of greater concern is when a religion or belief is taken over by people in this category. In this situation, I hold grave fears for the religion being twisted to suit whatever needs and desires the new leaders have. And because they don’t “get it” with respect to understanding God, they similarly won’t understand that their path is wrong. Ironically, if this sort of believer found themselves to be in a leadership position, they would actively persecute those who expressed subjective views on the existence of God, such as mystics. This is because they’d never realise that they didn’t really believe in, or really understand the nature of God, but rather that they adhered to some theological version of a Russia that they have never visited.
The Impact of Culture. Science and Stability
The Connection / Rejecter Atheist
We have four major obvious categories into which people can fall, depending on a combination of their objective and subjective relationship with the Divine. These categories are however not as simple as they would seem as how the way in which a person ultimately identifies themselves is also impacted upon by culture and the setting in which they find themselves.
Most obviously, there are undoubtedly many people who find themselves in highly religious societies, who feel that they have no choice, but to play along and claim adherence to a belief that doesn’t reflect their inner spirituality.
Similarly, within the scientific community, it is quite common to describe ones self as an atheist, rather than an agnostic. Indeed according to some surveys in excess of 80% of certain groups of scientists report being atheists, effectively reversing the trend among the general population. However, according to the theory of belief that I have proposed here (and remember it is ultimately a psychological theory of belief and thus open to being falsified), it would seem unlikely that such a large number of any one population would indeed be bereft of both types of belief in God. Although it very well may be a case of self selection, I believe that it is also highly likely that a significant number of scientists, who have a subjective belief in God, are describing themselves as atheist, rather than agnostic as this is the culturally accepted way to state non-belief among that community. Intellectually, they feel that they can justify this and are not being dishonest, because they have immersed themselves in a profession that is completely objective and which rejects the subjective as not being worthy of either study, or acknowledgement. By this logic, the scientist is likely to think and internalise a mental framework that holds that any subjective murmurs about the possible existence of God should not only be ignored as potential delusion, but possibly even repressed from conscious awareness. And what better way of doing this, then declaring that one is an atheist?
Given this, I suspect that a large proportion of the currently “atheist” scientific community would actually describe themselves as agnostic if they were in another profession, and as such would find that their spiritual journeys would also benefit from the path of the mystic.
The Disconnection / Rejecter Agnostic (and perhaps theist)
This person is one who doesn’t feel any connection to the Divine, and who doesn’t see any objective evidence for the existence of God, but who still declares themselves, perhaps counter intuitively as being either an agnostic, or even a theist of some sort. I believe that in this situation, there are a couple of things that might be taking place.
Firstly, is the possibility that the declared position of the person concerned reflects and optimism about the state of the universe, in that while they see no evidence for the existence of God, and feel no personal connection, it they hope that such a being does in fact exist and the best way of stating this hope is through identifying as an agnostic. This approach could also be regarded as an aesthetic approach to the possible existence of God, in that for many of these people it might seem somehow “appropriate”, that there is a God, even if they don’t personally see, or feel any evidence for such a being.
The second possibility of what may be occurring in some of these types relates to the nature of the religious institutions within our culture. The truth is that many people within any population place a great emphasis on the institutions and traditions that that particular society has established over the course of history. Religious traditions, because of their indisputable age are therefore held in respect, if not belief. Accordingly, this type of person is wary of anything that might be perceived as attacking, or undermining the institutions and which may then lead to a greatly feared degeneration of that society’s ethics and moral stature. Given this, a person who holds to this position, is going to find it very difficult to declare themselves as an atheists, as by doing so, they would themselves be a source of potential instability within society. Accordingly, such a person may instead view themselves as agnostic, as such a position will allow them to acknowledge their own lack of belief in the dominant religious paradigms of society, while not working to undermine the institutions that they see as being crucial for its long term survival.
The Importance of Knowing Who You Are.
By now it should be obvious to the reader that if my characterisation of religious belief is correct, it is important for each person to clarify where they stand in relation to both objective claims regarding God’s existence and their own subjective connection to the Divine. Unfortunately, while certain religions still cling to the idea that they have the ultimate truth and all others are going to Hell, the reality is that belief cannot be forced and true happiness for all lies in everyone identifying what makes sense to them and following that path in a rational and reasonable manner that allows and accommodates intuitions regarding the Divine. Indeed, it is my belief that if one holds out a position that doesn’t make sense internally, then their decision to live their life as a lie will doom them to stagnate spiritually and emotionally.
Ultimately, despite what fundamentalists atheists and theists would say, there are no “right”, or “wrong” answers to any of these questions. Instead, the focus should be on following the Ethical Principle, “Act With Empathy”. This principle holds that you respect and seek to understand yourself, just as you would others and that your properly considered perspective is just as important and worthwhile as the next person’s, even if you disagree entirely on the substance of every issue.