My Belief in god – Why Dawkins is Wrong
Artist’s rendering of a supermassive black hole
Image courtesy of www.nasa.gov.
As we have seen, in a very real sense Dawkins is Right: There is no objective evidence for the existence of God.
At this point, I am sure that many readers will be wondering why I am still hammering away at the keyboard, inflicting more yet more words on an unsuspecting public. Haven’t I already conceded the key point? Haven’t I admitted that there is no objective evidence for the existence of God and that to maintain a belief in His existence is to maintain what could be regarded by some as a delusion? Surely, the polite thing to do would be to withdraw gracefully, become an atheist and make the most of the possibilities offered by the fact of my own personal existence?
Well, no. The problem is that I still have this annoying belief that there is “something”, a Universal Consciousness that could be best described as “God”, although not in the traditional Christian sense. Am I deluded? Without evidence, the answer is possibly “yes”. Indeed, while many people may think that my belief in the existence of God rates up there with that of an invisible pink unicorn, called “Ralph”, the undeniable fact is that it looms strong upon my personal horizon.
So, I am sure that the burning question is plaguing the reader’s mind is “Why?” Why would an obviously intelligent, rational person believe in something for which they admit there is precisely no objective evidence.
The Religious Experience
The answer to this question can be found entirely within an aspect of religion that most atheists are totally unaware of, beyond a vague appreciation that it exists: The Religious Experience.
The religious experience is a subjective, experience of connection to a consciousness, or realm that transcends our own. The vast majority of people don’t feel its full impact, but even just a hint of this sensation is enough for many people to express a belief that there is “something” greater than them. At its fullest expression, as felt by mystics, persons who have Near Death Experiences and those under the influence of Entheogens (this list is not intended to be exhaustive!), it is often felt as an overwhelming connection to the Infinite, the Divine, or the Mind of God. There is the feeling of a supreme, or universal consciousness, containing infinite love, goodness and knowledge; an Eternal connection that transcends the limited framework of our rather limited, three dimensional universe. One may experience visions of amazingly beautiful environments, while hearing music that sounds as if where composed by God himself and emotions of amazing subtlety, grace and even tragedy. And most importantly, there is the feeling that this is all very, very, real and in no way part of a dream, or more mundane sense of consciousness.
Indeed such is the power of this experience that I have returned from a trance to discover that my eyes were filled with tears of joy at what I had been blessed enough to experience and my voice was whispering “thank you, thank you, thank you”, in appreciation for the gift.
It is the subjective experience of the Divine that drives my belief and that of a significant number of believers (I’ll be dealing with the other motivators of belief in a later chapter). But experiences such as this can only be described, never really communicated. Without the experience, it is impossible to appreciate its grandeur, beauty and intensity. How does one describe the feeling of the Infinite expanding within one’s awareness, briefly providing glimpses of paradise and possibilities, before collapsing back in on itself, so that the incredibly finite mind can only retain but a fraction of the essence that it has glimpsed?
It is the failure to comprehend the vibrant, transcendent qualia of the religious experience that leads atheists like Dawkins to write polemic books against religion that totally fail to make an impact upon the experiential believer. This is because they are writing books that address facts in the objective world of “reality” rather than addressing the real reasons for belief that lie within the subjective experience of conscious beings.
Certainly Dawkins and others recognise that subjective experience plays a part in religious belief, but because they don’t understand it (and perhaps recognising its power), they instead attempt to trivialise it, fobbing it off as mere “delusion”. What they fail to realise is that in arbitrarily denying the validity and relevance of the theists’ subjective experience, atheists have ensured that they will never be able to effectively grapple with one of the most significant reasons that people believe in God. It is as if a group of colour blind people wrote a book insisting that colours didn’t actually exist and that to think they did was just a delusion, because after all, colours are just a subjective experience. Like schizophrenia.
So why has this happened? How could it be that a well educated and assumedly well read scholar, such as Dawkins could fail to understand the importance of the subjective and instead waste so much time focusing on mere facts? Simply put, I believe the answer to this is that Dawkins does not feel any connection to the Divine within his Psyche and as such fails to understand, or appreciate its power. Consequently, he is unable to conceptualise that the religious experience might in fact be a different type of experience to mere delusion, or even that it might be a different type of experience to normal consciousness. He certainly fails to appreciate the power of the experience and the near impossibility of the experient denying its validity.
How can this happen? How could one group of people experience something so vividly, while others never even suspect its existence? The answer probably lies within the fact that like many things in life, the subjective feeling of a connection with the Divine seems to occur on something of a sliding scale. At one end, there are people (such as myself) who feel a strong, almost overwhelming connection, while at the other, there are people for whom the connection is weak, or non-existent. In the middle lie the majority of the population, many perhaps unsure as to the implications of what they sense.
The colour blind analogy is again useful here. Most people have full colour vision, where they can see all colours, but a few report being able to experience particularly vivid, or sensitive colour discrimination. Similarly, many people are colour-blind, either not being able to sense all colours, or perhaps being unable to sense colours at all. But colour is an experience, not a fact in the real world. The rose in your garden, or the lips or your lover, do not contain any objective “redness”, but rather reflect light in such a way that the human eye and brain interpret it as “red”. Indeed, despite its subjective nature, the perception of colour is a fact. Nothing that anybody could say would dissuade even the most silliest of people from the belief that they could not perceive the colour red. Perception entails belief.
Similarly, the religious experience is not something that can be pointed to in the real world, but rather exists within the perception of the beholder. And just as a person who can experience colour isn’t going to be convinced otherwise, a person who experiences the transcendent, overwhelmingly beautiful state in which they seem to commune with the very heart and soul of the universe is not going to be able to be convinced that it hasn’t in fact occurred.
Now, some readers will by now be clamouring to be heard, insisting that the experience of colour is not the same as the experience of God. Being able to see colour reflects (pun intended) the fact that light has certain properties and that these can be measured in the wavelengths of light, but the experience of God cannot be measured in a similar way. This is certainly true, but anyone who has though themselves incredibly clever for realising this should think again, because it indicates that while you may have an excellent grasp of physics, you are still failing to understand the religious mind. Remember, it is the experience that drives belief. Experience equals reality!
Let’s try another analogy. Imagine that you are at the beach, playing happily with your puppy on a beautiful summer’s day. Imagine that you suddenly sight an alien ship come into land. Pale humanoids, dressed in amazing costumes emerge and endeavour to communicate with you, asking who only knows what. After a short time, they appear to get bored and after taking some samples, they go back to their ship and leave without a trace.
What on earth has just happened? Did aliens really land, try to talk to you and leave without a trace? Were you delusional? Are you going mad? Surely everyone knows that aliens don’t exist. Don’t they? But it seemed so real!
The fact is that no matter how much you try to tell yourself that you haven’t experienced something extraordinary, you know that you did. You aren’t really equipped to know what the real truth is and when you describe it to others, you will do so imperfectly, unable to recall significant details. There is no point denying it, even if others call you mad, stupid, or believe that you are unable to cope with reality and therefore have to take refuge in the whimsy of imagination. Indeed, even if you do decide after facing overwhelming peer pressure that you were in fact delusional, you will always be haunted by what you could never know was in fact the first meeting between a Tasmanian aboriginal and the soon to be invading Europeans.
How many readers assumed “space aliens” in this analogy? Did this colour your perceptions about how likely the person was to be deluded and why? Was this a valid assumption, given that the aliens were proven to be all too real and the “delusion”, reality?
Just as a primitive tribesman meeting white people for the first time might be unable to adequately convey their experience and so doubted by the rest of their people, so to the mystic faces a similar battle against those who would deny that anything “real” actually occurred. But the fact is that something significant does indeed occur during an encounter with the Divine. More importantly, this experience carries with it a reality that is undeniable, in the same way as the seeming flesh and blood sailors coming off a ship would seem to the aboriginal.
Hopefully, readers will now be able to understand why arguments that address the “facts” will always fail to gain traction with a person who is religious because of their subjective religious experience. That person is very much like the person meeting the aliens; they simply cannot deny the experience as to do so entails denying something that is very real to them indeed. As any journeyed mystic will tell you, the religious experience itself lies beyond comprehension, but is transcendental in nature and as such speaks about a reality beyond the bounds of this finite one in which we find ourselves.
As such, there is simply nothing that science can say in order to address these phenomena to the satisfaction of an experiential believer, such as myself. Irrespective of how many brain scan correlation studies are done, how many reductionist theories of the event produced and how many accusations of delusion are hurled, the believer knows what they have experienced and what they continue to experience on every single day of their lives. They might freely acknowledge (as I do) that it might all be a delusion, but this is nothing more than an extension on Descartes’ famous the realisation that everything that we experience might in fact be a delusion, with the whole world of sensory experience a Matrix style illusion created to keep our mind entertained.
For people in what some have delighted in calling the “reality based universe”, the realisation that the subjective might overwhelm the objective may come as something of a nasty shock, accompanied perhaps by a sense of confusion and bewilderment. However, for those who are prepared to undergo a bit of introspection, it will soon become obvious that this truth is one that operates in all of our lives. The only reason that we believe anything about the world is because the information from our senses tells us so. How does one know that other people exist? We believe they exist because our subjective experience tells us so: we see them, hear their voices and feel their touch against our skin. Even the supposed world of “objective” reality is little more than a person’s subjective experience of others agreeing with them that the world is a particular way. And while the objective world of the atheist is relpete with examples of scientific reductionism, the world of the experiential believer is full of trancendent experience and just as many people who agree that this is a genuine reflection of objective reality.
Atheists and the Religious Conversation
It isn’t just the atheist, who fails to understand the other. Theists are just as guilty, as any atheist who has been accused of “hating God”, or having “rejected God”, because they just “want to live in sin” can attest to. Theists far too often assume that others are just like them and that subsequently “everybody feels God at the core of their being”, and that atheism must be a conscious rejection of the Divine, rather than what is often more akin to a total lack of connection with it.
When faced with statements that show a clear lack of awareness of the logic of atheism, the bemused target can only shake their heads and say “you just don’t get it”. But in failing to appreciate the logic of theism, the atheist commits the same error. They wrongly assume that their arguments of rationality and science will strike a cord with the theist and reason that any theist who resists them must be “irrational”, “deluded”, “afraid of death”, or “talking to an imaginary friend”.
Which is a shame, because the issues that Dawkins raises are still of vital importance within the community of believers. Much of what he says regarding the evil perpetrated in the name of God is perfectly true. The ongoing perversion of people’s moral awareness, along with the abuse, deception and killing must stop. People must be free to believe what it makes sense for them to believe and free to express their beliefs without fear of harm from evil people who would seek to control them in pursuit of earthly power. For many the belief in the existence of God is beyond challenge, but the conversation about the nature and form of that being is still open.
Not only is this is a conversation that needs to take place and which atheists are well equipped to participate, but it is one in which they might be able to have a positive impact on the experiential believer. But only if they approach the believer from a perspective which respects, rather than rejects the religious experience. This entails the atheist accepting that they are unlikely to ever convert someone to atheism and coming to terms with the fact that the best outcome will in all likelihood be one which merely redirects the believer into less destructive, dishonest and dangerous paths, where they can explore the Divine Mind without placing their fate into the hands of dogmatic overlords and cultish exploiters.
This is the sting in the tail of understanding. For many, acceptance of the reality and power of religious experience will be a high price for being dealt back into the game with a relevant hand. But failure to accept this price will ensure nothing but an ongoing pointless and spiteful “debate”, where those who can’t be bothered to understand the other struggle to understand why their words seem to have no meaning, or impact on the other.
The reward, of course is a world in which an ongoing dialogue in which all parties are listened to and in which each person promotes Empathy for the other, respecting not only their choices, but also their right to make choices and engage in behaviours that are different from the ones that we would choose for them. Only in such a world, where disagreement is perceived as an opportunity for understanding and arguments become opportunities for constructive win-win dialogue, can humanity finally begin to thrive and achieve its true potential.