In a HuffPo essay entitled “Why I Love Religion,” Rabbi Alan Lurie writes:
I love the holy texts, the rituals, the art, the histories, the practices, the mystical teachings and the sacred spaces. I love religion, while very aware of its obvious dangers and limitations, because for the last 15 years religion has provided insight, intellectual growth, friendships and inspiration that continue to transform my life for the better.
We’re really not on the same page here. I agree with him about the art, and I’m not sure what he means by “the histories,” but I find nothing to admire in the remaining items on his list. I am not only unimpressed by the world’s various alleged holy texts, but I frankly dislike the whole idea of a holy text. Most religious rituals and practices leave me beyond cold, I think the world’s “mystical teachings” should be discarded in toto, and I think better uses could be found for sacred spaces. But I am interested in what came after this opening. You see, Lurie attributes his currently warm feelings towards religion to an experience he had:
Although I grew up in a Conservative Jewish home with parents who encouraged us in Judaism, until the age of 37, I wanted little to do with religion. Religion seemed to be no more than a crutch for those who are too afraid to face life directly, or a backwards tradition that had nothing to do with modern life. And I could not imagine how any intelligent adult could possibly believe in some kind of super-being who created everything, gave us texts, and cares about us in some way. I firmly believed that if only humanity could get past these ridiculous superstitions the world would be a much better place.
All this changed in a moment when suddenly, unexpectedly, and from a normal state of awareness, my defenses were stripped away and I was given a glimpse of the spiritual realm. Such moments are very difficult to describe, and always lose their reality to the limitation of language — like reading about sex compared to having (great) sex. I can say, though, that what I experienced was beyond anything I could have conceived. In that moment I saw with microscopic clarity of vision, felt an unrestricted connection to others, and was surrounded by a loving embrace. And in that moment I received a message from a “voice” that spoke with endless compassion and wisdom. It said simply, “I love you, and you must change.” I cried for the first time that I could remember, and audibly answered, “yes”.
I now know this moment as grace — the spontaneous, unwarranted, self-revelation of spirit: God’s wake-up call.
In my interactions with creationists over the years I have heard essentially this story many times. From my perspective as an atheist, these stories can be a bit frustrating. Other aspects of religion I am permitted to discuss intellectually and come to some reasoned conclusion. The various traditional arguments for God’s existence have received clear formulations from philosophers, making it trivial to see their faults and inadequacies. The Bible can today be read by anyone willing to invest the time, and I can find in it not the slightest reason for thinking it has a divine origin. A variety of academic disciplines shed light on the persistence of religious belief despite the frequently incredible character of its dogmas and theologies.
But now it seems that all this time I have been missing the point. Apparently religion is actually about having sudden moments of insight into the reality of a spiritual realm. Writing in the 1930’s, theologian Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote:
Let it stand as merely an indication of the major fact that multiplying numbers of
people, when they think of religion, mean not a church, nor a system of theology,
but a saving experience of inner spiritual devotion and daily spiritual power! . . . [W]hen the modern mind hears the creeds upon which many of the
churches still insist, with all the corollaries brought out by controversy and
urged as indispensable of religious truth–old cosmologies, doctrines of
Biblical infallibility, miracles like virgin birth or physical resurrection–the
reaction is not simply incredulity, although incredulity is undoubtedly
emphatic–but wonder as to what such things have to do with religion.
Since I apparently lack the sensitivities of people like Lurie or Fosdick, I am expected simply to make due with the stories people tell me about such experiences. If they sound incredible or implausible to me, that can only be because I have never had such an experience myself. This becomes especially annoying when people argue that the claimed religious experiences of others should count as evidence in favor of the existence of God. For example, Richard Swinburne writes:
If some people do not have these experiences, that suggests that they are blind to religious realities–just as someone’s inability to see colors does not show that the many of us who claim to see them are mistaken, only that he is color-blind.
Now, I can think of all sorts of really good reasons for being skeptical of religious experiences. For example, it seems like a poor analogy to liken religious experiences to sense experiences, since the latter are subject to a variety of cross-checks and verifications while the former are not. I have confidence in the correctness of my sense perceptions both because of their internal consistency (I hear the glass break at the same moment I see it smash into the ground), as well as the corroborating testimony of other witnesses (they all saw the glass break at the same moment I did). No such cross-checks seem possible in the case of religious experience.
Moreover, experiences get interpreted in terms of the norms and tropes of the society in which they occur. There is a reason that people immersed in Christian societies tend to have experiences of Jesus, while people in Muslim societies have experiences of Allah. Writing in 1938, philosopher John Morrison Moore explained the significance of this:
Within any given culture people learn to find particular religious meanings in
certain types of experience, while in another culture these experiences might not
be regarded as religious at all or might have a very different religious significance.
Th e pluralistic nature of religious experience implies also that no general
answer can be given to the problem of the cognitive value or authority of religious experience . . . It must be remembered, furthermore, that interpretations which seem to come from the experience itself may in reality have been
furnished as a framework of the experience from outside it. It is misleading to
think of an interpretation simply as “growing out of” an experience, for our
categories and established modes of reaction are present before any particular
experience, and condition the form which the experience itself takes.
I have also grown a bit cynical from the sheer ubiquity of experience in the discourse of religious believers. In Lurie’s case, for example, what was initially a sudden and unexpected intrusion into his normal routine is now a common occurrence. He writes:
In order to help understand this I started reading all kinds of spiritual books — mostly non-religious — and began to discover that my experience was by no means unique. Others had described similar encounters, and their description aligned almost exactly with mine, as though we were tourists who had visited the same lands. And I continued to have spontaneous mystical experiences, which encouraged me to continue my search.
In my interactions with the creationists it seemed they were endlessly attributing the most mundane occurrences to the actions of the Holy Spirit. Where most people would say simply, “I decided to do X,” a creationist would say, “I felt the Holy Spirit leading me to do X.” Somehow when creationists tell me about their religious experiences, there always seems to be a hint of defiance in their voice, like they’re defying me to challenge them in some way. But what can you say to someone who says his faith is based on a private experience to which you do not have access?
I wonder also about the theological explanation of religious experience. Lurie describes an experience that he understood to be a clear communication from God telling him that he needed to change his ways. Well, I have never had such an experience. Does that mean God does not think I need to change? Perhaps he has simply given up on me, but if that is so then he has given up on a lot of people, since most of us do not have experiences of the sort Lurie describes.
I gradually discovered that religion is, in its essence, a compilation of experiences and teaching from those who have glimpsed the spiritual realm, have known of its transformative power, and have tried to communicate this to others so that we may be more fully alive.
Similar thoughts were expressed in a 1930 essay by philosopher C. D. Broad:
Let us, then, compare tone-deaf persons to those who have no recognizable
religious experiences at all; the ordinary followers of a religion to men who
have some taste for music but can neither appreciate the more diffi cult kinds
nor compose; highly religious men and saints to persons with an exception-
ally fi ne ear for music who may yet be unable to compose it; and the founders
of religions to great musical composers, such as Bach and Beethoven.
But why are people gifted to differing degrees in their ability to perceive the spiritual realm? Why does God reveal Himself clearly to some but not to others? Some people are granted experiences that seem to them to provide unambiguous evidence of God’s existence, but the rest of us are expected to make do with inadequate, second-hand accounts. Where is the justice in that? This seems especially pressing in the case of religions like Christianity, where getting it wrong on the God question earns you an eternity in hell. Nothing of eternal significance is riding on people’s differing abilities for music or writing. But in seeing our way clear to the proper path to salvation it seems that God gives some people a head start.
So, as I said, I find all sorts of reasons for being skeptical that some people are actually receiving communications from a spiritual realm. As evidence for God, the reported divine encounters of others seems to have little value. Still, experiences with the power to so transform a person’s life are not to be dismissed lightly. A sudden change in lifestyle based on a religious experience is evidence, at least, that something significant happened, even as its highly debatable that supernatural intervention was involved.