Wanting to believe

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A recent study has found that "lonely people were more likely to believe in the supernatural, whether it be God, angels or miracles, than when they were not feeling lonely."

It would be a fallacy to infer from this that therefore God is purely a human mental construct, built on a human need to want to believe. For one thing, many non-lonely people also believe in God. But, more importantly, the existence or non-existence of God doesn't depend on whether humans have motivations for wanting to believe in him/her. Whether my parents exist or not has nothing to do with whether I want them to.

Furthermore, a theist could just as easily argue that God the Creator specifically called forth within creation (or evoked the evolution of) a desire to experience God, which then happens to become particularly in evidence in times of loneliness.

The converse of this is also obviously true; having a psychological need to believe in God is certainly not an argument for God's existence. When I told my parents at the age of 16 that I was an atheist, my father retorted that "there are no atheists in foxholes, " as if somehow that were a logical reason to believe that God existed.

I recently had a discussion in another blog about the argument which says the following: since the brain can be stimulated physically to produce a mental religious experience of God, that somehow proves that the experience of God is just in the brain and has no objective reality. But this is plainly not a valid argument; the brain can be stimulated to experience light, but that doesn't prove that photons don't exist.

The upshot of this is simply that the truth of the existence of God does not depend on what the human mind or brain does or wants to do. People can come down on whatever side they want to on the subject of religion--they can believe in God, or not, since there is no way of proving or disproving God's existence. In that sense, I think that in the modern age religion cannot help but be a personal choice.

I think there is nothing wrong with believing in God just because that is what you want to believe. You have to have some reason for taking a position, given that there is no proof one way or another, so why not that one? As I said in that blog discussion about science and religion, science tells us "what", but religion tells us "why". And I think humans frequently do have a need to know the "why" behind our existence. I know that I do. Giving yourself a meta-narrative that imbues the world with a special kind of meaning--that is a role that religion can play in many people's lives. And if that meta-narrative is ethical, or better still contains some elements of rationality, then what's the problem? But not everyone needs religion for that purpose either. And not everyone need come up with the same meta-narrative. What I think ultimately matters is that, if God exists, he/she is more concerned about how we treat one another than what position we stake in a theological debate.

13 comments:

Rob said...

What I think ultimately matters is that, if God exists, he/she is more concerned about how we treat one another than what position we stake in a theological debate.

Well said Mystical. I think this insight is summed up in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and is found in Shin Buddhism, and all the other major religious traditions.

Frank said...

Interesting! I have trouble believing when I am by myself, that's when I get into my post-modern funk and claw for any scrap of belief I can find. When I'm with people in vibrant community is when faith seems so apparent.

Sometimes people get content. The have "built bridges" to this world, and don't need to look any further. During trying times is when we are forced to reach beyond, waving our hands in the darkness hoping to grab ahold of someone or something out there who might reach back and pull us ashore.

Perhaps this is the real warning against the rich--being so content you don't reach.

Mystical Seeker said...

Rob,

I agree. I think the great religious traditions all have at their core an important ethical component that can serve as the basis for greater interfaith dialogue.

Frank,

Interesting comment. I actually didn't address the social component at all, but it is true that people often find solace in the community of faith. I think that the religious life is really only a vibrant and living process if it takes place within the context a community. Otherwise, it becomes just theological masturbation.

Chris said...

Good post, my friend.

Matthew said...

>>And I think humans frequently do have a need to know the "why" behind our existence. I know that I do.... the truth of the existence of God does not depend on what the human mind or brain does or wants to do....since there is no way of proving or disproving God's existence.<<

Any belief, not just belief in God, is unprovable. Belief is belief, a thought in someone's head. Why should it be anything more?

>>And if that meta-narrative is ethical, or better still contains some elements of rationality, then what's the problem? ... And not everyone need come up with the same meta-narrative.<<

Haven't meta-narratives been the causes of religious wars over the centuries?

Isn't the concern of religion more about finding wholeness, instead of contriving meta-narratives about some why?

I think Jesus was right in saying, 'The truth will set you free.'

Meta-narratives can't do that. They're more akin to 'Alka Seltzer', which gives temporary relief.

Matthew

Frank said...

But isn't "wholeness" just another meta-narrative?

I am not sold on the idea that meta-narratives are the cause of religious wars. I've seen people do beautiful things with a narrative, other people do horrible things, others do casual things, and other people do nothing at all--each with the same narrative. It seems like it is not really the narratives to blame (unless you want to argue that those people really do have different narratives, even though they seem similar on the surface). How does one person become a Franciscan, servant of the poor, and another person enlist in the Crusades?

I think it has something to do with peoples ability to embrace either fear or love, which has nothing to do with theology, but can be helped along by good theology.

Frank said...

MS-- I don't just feel solace in community. I truly experience faith in such a way that it is self-evident. Lock me in my room at night, I'm all doubt and worry. Put me in the middle of a group of people, and I'm all faith. It is a comfort, but it doesn't come from a desire for comfort, even though I do have that desire. Its just the natural result of being in community for me.

Seems like most people you mentioned feel more faith in times of loneliness, but I would say its the opposite for me (times of sheer desperation excluded--alone or in community those are moments of connection!)

Matthew said...

>>It seems like it is not really the narratives to blame.... How does one person become a Franciscan, servant of the poor, and another person enlist in the Crusades?<<

Frank, you're correct. The narrative isn't the problem, but it's a symptom of a problem.

The problem comes from lack of trust in God (Reality). As I understand it's use here, a meta- narrative attempts to give meaning to the 'mystery'. It's usefulness derives mainly from it's ability to ease anxiety, when the creature is confronted by the 'mystery'.

No meta-narrative is needed to be freed from anxiety, because anxiety almost miraculously disappears (replaced by peace) when the alienated support structure that created it collapses.

Why do you think the word 'wholeness' is another meta-narrative?

Matthew

Mystical Seeker said...

Saying "just trust in God" (or reality) is itself an attempt at giving meaning to the mystery. If you say that the Ultimate reality is trustworthy, or that things will work out for the best so you should just not worry about it, or whatever it is that this statement is trying to convey, then you have made a kind of theological statement.

There is no more inherent reason to assume that the universe is trustworthy, or that we should just trust in God (or Reality), than that we should not. To choose to trust in the Ultimate is itself an attempt at making meaning out of the Universe. It makes an implicit assumption about how reality works. Instead of taking an attitude of trust, you could just as easily assume that the universe is hostile, or at best indifferent, to us. Existentialists, for example, might say that "life is absurd" for precisely that reason. I think it is pretty hard to escape making some statement about how we should approach the reality that we are a part of.

Frank said...

"The problem comes from lack of trust in God (Reality). As I understand it's use here, a meta- narrative attempts to give meaning to the 'mystery'. It's usefulness derives mainly from it's ability to ease anxiety, when the creature is confronted by the 'mystery'.


On this point, I think we are saying the same things. Anxiety is just another word for fear. The nattartives we use are either based on that fear or based on love, and have the ability to encourage either of those aspects.

I see in the history of Christianty, for example, many who chose to read "love" in the narrative and many who read "fear". The narrative has both aspects woven within it.

So I wouldn't argue that the whole narrative is built on fear, but much of it is.

So then what causes fear?

Matthew said...

>>If you say that the Ultimate reality is trustworthy, or that things will work out for the best so you should just not worry about it, or whatever it is that this statement is trying to convey, then you have made a kind of theological statement.<<

I'm not making any of those statements. You keep doing that.

I'm speaking from a mystic's perspective, not a rational one.

>>I think it is pretty hard to escape making some statement about how we should approach the reality that we are a part of.<<

The approach is TO BE, to participate in and with Reality, not to understand it. What I'm trying to clarify is that we can't be with the fullness of Reality, unless we stop breaking it apart to be this way or that.

A statement about Reality isn't Reality. You're looking at a particular 'slice' of it; one that is meaningful to you at a particular time. You're making selections, or reducing it to certain favored parts. As if you're considering only the trunk of an elephant, then claiming the elephant is a giant snake.

Matthew

Mystical Seeker said...

I'm not making any of those statements. You keep doing that.

Then you think that we should trust an untrustworthy Reality? Or that we should trust a Reality even if we don't know whether it is trustworthy or not?

A statement about Reality isn't Reality. You're looking at a particular 'slice' of it; one that is meaningful to you at a particular time. You're making selections, or reducing it to certain favored parts. As if you're considering only the trunk of an elephant, then claiming the elephant is a giant snake.

I have never claimed that the trunk of an elephant is a snake. I recognize fully that the trunk is not the elephant. That is why I am a religious pluralist.

The approach is TO BE, to participate in and with Reality, not to understand it.

And if that is what works for you, more power to you.

What you seem to be saying is that you want to grope and elephant and then not even notice that the part of the elephant you are holding has certain characteristics. That's fine if it works for you. But you seem to want to insist that everyone should follow your way. But a lot of us really do want to know about the part of the elephant we are experiencing. And I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The desire to understand, human curiosity, is a natural phenomenon. I object as strongly to those who insist that their part of the elephant is the whole elephant as I do to those who don't want to even know anything about the elephant they are touching.

Can we ever know the fullness of God's reality? Of course not. Does that mean we therefore should just give up and make no effort at understanding God? If you want to take that stance for your own spirituality, go for it; but I don't think that very many people in the monotheistic tradition, regardless of theology, would choose such a path. It is pretty central to my faith that God has certain characteristics--that God is loving, that God is inclusive, that God is a God of justice. Maybe I'm wrong about all of that. So be it. But that is part of my meta-narrative, and it is what works for me as a means of making sense out of the universe. And I won't apologize for seeking to make sense of the universe. Sorry.

Matthew said...

Mystical,

I'm not insisting that others see things my way. I don't expect that (HOW could they, they don't have my experience?)

I suppose I'm a bit tenacious when it comes to precision in spiritual language. The spiritual path isn't normal reality. The journey takes tremendous dedication and it's not easy, but it sure is amazing! Aweful, to use an old term.

Peace,
Matthew