Thursday, May 24, 2012

No, not everyone knows God is real

Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, ...
Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, face detail of God. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It is more or less a dogma among some people that deep down everyone knows God is real. Aside from the question of what role that would leave for faith (which cannot exist without doubt--some people confuse faith with certainty), another question is what is means to know that God is real.

This is trickier than it sounds for skeptics and believers alike. Belief has several important shades of meaning, depth, and conviction. Is belief assent or agreement with an intellectual proposition such as "Korea is currently divided into two nation states and is located on a peninsula south of China" or is it an opinion such as "Rat terriers are the best dog breed"? Is it an intuition or a choice?

And upon what is a particular belief grounded? Is it an assumption you picked up as habitus because the people around you seemed to think and act like it was true? Has it been confirmed by your own experiences, and how do you know your perceptions and conclusions surrounding your experiences weren't biased by your pre-existing beliefs or those of the people you've encountered in your life?

This is especially tricky when it comes to belief in God because of differing perceptions on the nature of God and how God interacts with people. If God is within then is that warm glow you feel in your chest a sign? If God is without, then was your prayer answered when you asked for something and it happened? Or was that just a coincidence? And on it goes.

Then there are categories of connections to the divine such as peak experiences and a sense of the numinous. These can include the sensation or perception of non-dual unity with the universe, possession by absolute acceptance and bliss,  an overwhelming sense of wonder and awe generating a sense of connection to a larger mystery. And while they don't have to be interpreted as incontrovertible proof of a higher power, arguably these events are less ambiguous than other experiences that are taken to be signs of God.

Still, there are those who have no convincing sensations, serendipitous occurrences, or extraordinary shifts in conscious awareness. They have no felt sense of the presence of God and no intuition of an overarching purpose to either the universe or their own lives. And regardless of whether the personal testimonies of others or intellectual arguments about the reality of God sound convincing, there is nothing of substance upon which they can sincerely claim to know that God is real.

Let's explore some common themes that arise when expressing such lack of knowledge of God's reality.

"You don't want to believe (because you prefer sin)"

That may be true for some who have no sense of God's presence or reality, but certainly not for all. In fact, some in that camp go to great links to try to appreciate, understand, reach out to, and experience some kind of higher power. The general reason given by those who claim some people do not want to know the reality of God is that they prefer a life involving some kind of sin. It's a rude and presumptuous attitude, but then again, it is generally expressed by rude and presumptuous people.

"You have some some unresolved negative emotions or deep psychological/spiritual wounds"

 Instead of saying some people prefer not to know God, this approach says that people may be unwillingly or unknowingly cut off from an experience of divine presence because of a damaged capacity to love, trust, or take emotional risks. That is, there is resistance to knowing God but it is more of an unconscious reflex.  This version may also include self-esteem issues.

Yet there are people with these problems who claim to know God and there are people who don't make such a claim who show no outward signs of such emotional damage. To assume it this as the reason for their perspective on God is as inappropriate as assuming they simply don't want to believe.

"You have to open your heart/still the mind"

People like to use euphemisms such as "opening your heart", yet such euphemisms may do precious little to give someone a clue as to how to actually seek such realizations or what they would mean/how they would be experienced by someone actualizing them.

So, what do people in Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam etc. mean when they talk about "the heart?" In modern Western societies this has come to mean the seat of passion and the source of sentimentality. But along with non-theistic religions, it traditionally meant something more.

What is the heart? Is it comparable, for example, to some Eastern notions of the mind, which in some cases includes what people in the West might call "spirit"? Is that which it beyond the rational, reductionist, pattern-reinforcing "left-brain" thinking? Does it include the holistic, interconnected perspective of the "right-brain" as well?

If so, that might lead to some interesting notions of spirituality in the mind and its connection to the brain. It could explain how and why social, ethical, and moral integrity are connected to a sense of spirituality, and why emotional damage can alter the perception of this sense. It may also give a neurological explanation of one's sense of God or spiritual awareness, and how changing environments, attitudes and behaviors can alter such awareness via neuroplasticity.

It in turn could offer answers to how one "opens" or explore the heart.  Some do try to "seek" and yet may be misunderstanding what others are saying or unable to replicate the intended experience because the path is not laid out in terms that non-spiritually oriented people can grasp. I very much sympathize with those who are frustrated at the use of such language with the assumption that it's meaning is supposed to be obvious, when for many it is not.

Perhaps such brain rewiring is indeed accomplished by resting in "bare awareness" as advocated in meditation, contemplating paradox and the notion that much of what we experience is biased or illusory, and by focusing on loving-kindness and compassion. That doesn't speak to the reality of the divine, but perhaps at least to the experiences attributed to a higher power.

Still, if there is no is no clear, unmistakable and direct knowledge of available to all people at all levels of intelligence and awareness of anything we might rightly call God in the sense that the term is typically used, it is in fact not fair to suggest that everyone knows on some level that God exists. Unless that knowledge is buried so deep or requires such elevated states of perception that it is not part of ordinary consciousness. In which case people still aren't lying, making excuses, or in denial when they say they have no knowledge of God's existence.

Argumentum ad populum: "Everyone else knows it is true"

It is unfair and unwise to claim that because many people are either affiliated with religion or presume there is a God we can assume that everyone really knows something divine is present. How many people do in fact participate in religion and or assume God exists, not out of unambiguous direct experience, but as a sociological phenomenon?

The same is true for a sense of the sublime. Not everyone is readily given to such emotional responses or experiences them to the same degree, what triggers them isn't constant, and again, multiple explanations as to their source and significance are plausible. There is no reason to assume everyone who speaks of "God" or experiences of same are all talking about the same thing.

"Your awareness of God is subliminal or not fully activated/God is too obvious to notice"

If one has no conscious awareness of something, it isn’t real to them. Saying that awareness of God is subliminal doesn't change that. Someone could just as easily have a subliminal awareness that God isn’t real or that extra-terrestrial aliens are controlling the government, but if one had no conscious awareness of such things, why would one believe them?

This kind of suggestion sounds like an attempt to explain away why even sincere seekers have no experience of anything divine, whatever cultural construction of a higher power is in use. Thus a skeptic or spiritual seeker could rightly ask:

If God is so subtle as to be thought of simply as the ground of Being, why should anyone detect it? How would it be distinguishable from the typical conception of a godless universe, i.e. the absence of deities (either plural or as a single super-charged specimen)? You could argue philosophically about it, but that isn't the same as direct intuitive knowledge that is unambiguous and available to all.

If God is not so subtle, then why doesn't everyone detect it?

Even the well-known monastic contemplative Thomas Merton wrote about not being able to ever fully perceive God or the foundation of our reality because it is too vast and at the same time to intimate and familiar. That even in mystical union it is still like seeing the shadow God's light casts, that the logical mind cannot come up with any framework for such an experience, and only remembers or can describe the afterglow.

He and others have also talked about the mystery of such belief, that it is like seeing something with peripheral vision, and when you try to glance at it or grab it vanishes.

"The (peak) experiences of others should be sufficient to convince you"

While the experiences of others may be intriguing or compelling, they are not a substitute for one's own direct, personal experience of something. Many people make claims about the nature and meaning of their experiences on all manner of topics, and the truth and reliability of these claims is open for debate.

Just because something seems true for one person doesn't mean it is true for someone else. That doesn't mean that seems true to others or that it couldn't be true--we are talking here about a fundamental difference in experience and perception.

Hypothetical, speculative, or anecdotal reasons for belief cannot substitute for or generate the direct experiences on which belief is based. And some people do not have experiences which can be attributed to a significant sense of the numinous or other signs of God's presence.

There may be many who fit this description than is commonly reported because in some cases the language is ambiguous. For example, how many people in a survey would distinguish between something that is aesthetically pleasing or emotionally charged because of a previous experience and its associated memory and a genuine sense of deep and moving beauty?

Perhaps maybe some theists have no significant sense of the numinous and maybe some atheists do, but both types are caught up in cultural narratives, social landscapes, ideological struggles and personal histories that define them as belonging to the "believer" and "non-believer" camps. Who knows?

Concluding Thoughts

Not everyone who lacks a felt sense of God's presence or reality considers themselves atheist or agnostic or identifies with the social identities and movements of self-identified skeptics and non-believers, but it isn't a stretch to assume that many who do identify as such would be included in the no direct and personal knowledge of God category.

Belief and knowledge are slippery things, often as much based on our emotions and preferred self-image as much as anything else. It is indeed possible to talk yourself in or out of accepting your experiences or even subconsciously ignoring or distorting them to fit your preferred or presumed worldview.

But is there something someone else could so that might convince someone else that there is a greater mystery and depth to reality that sounds like the descriptions of the supernatural or the divine?

There was a popular parable many years ago about a village of people born without eyes. Someone with eyes visited the village, and the villagers assumed she was delusional when she spoke of sight. They examined her, and thought that her eyes were actually tumors pressing against her brain and causing hallucinations. If she would only allow them to remove the tumors, they argued, her hallucinations would cease.

I don't know of any significant and consistent structural differences in the brains of those who claim experiences of the numinous and those who do not. But which way do we go? Is such an experience pointing to something real to which some people are blind, or is it a false perception?

In the case of the villagers in the parable, one test would be to see if this so-called "sight" really did give a perceptual advantage. The woman with eyes should be able to demonstrate a greater awareness of what is happening in the world, maybe predict or explain things with more accuracy or navigate more quickly and efficiently than those without eyes for example.

I think this is part of the believer/non-believer debate as well as skeptics will wonder, "Why can't or won't people who claim to possess such enhanced spiritual perception provide such a clear and unambiguous demonstration?" And would skeptics accept such a demonstration?

Feel free to share your thoughts and your own experiences concerning the presence of God or how you have attempted to seek it. Did it work? Was it worth it? And of course, what was it like?

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