Friday, May 1, 2015

Why I Don't Call Myself a "Believer"

In a previous post, "Another Look at Religion" I discussed my view of religion as mythology, something that belongs in the same category as art, music, theater, poetry and literature, the purpose of which is not to “explain” but to “inspire.” More recently, in “Letting God Out of the Box,” reflections on Frank Schaeffer’s delightful new book “Why I am an Atheist who Believes in God,” I described how for me “God” is not a “belief” but rather, a label that I use to describe my subjective personal experience. That post generated some wonderful, lively discussion. Thanks so much to everyone for your very thoughtful insights and questions! You have inspired me to discuss the issue of “belief” further and to explain why I don’t normally use the word “believe” in reference to God.

My description of “God” as Something I experience that is beyond intellectual constructs has led some readers to assume that my approach is non-rational or purely “emotional,” but that is an incorrect assumption. While the yoga/meditative practice results in a state which transcends both thought and feeling, my spiritual journey, far from being “non-rational,” has involved a great deal of rational analysis. A degree in philosophy along with studies in theology and comparative religions provided intellectual tools which could only take me so far. In philosophy we spend a great deal of time just discussing fundamental concepts like epistemology, i.e., “how do we know anything??” What I ultimately found was that both western and eastern philosophy are like a dog chasing its own tail, in terms of the limitations of human knowledge. Obviously I cannot condense my education into this short post, so you can either take my word for it or read a whole bunch of tedious books yourself, if you wish. But, what I would like to do is share with you my thought process about “belief in God.”


Words can mean different things to different people and in various contexts. The online dictionary defines belief as:
1. an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.
2. trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something.

For me, “belief” is an intellectual construct involving data, and I most often use the word with regard to verifiable events in the material world. For example, “I believe per the instructions, this 6-pound bird @ 20 minutes per pound will be cooked in approximately 2 hours @ 350 degrees.” Or, “Given the history of their legislative behavior, I believe the GOP will continue to support the rich and screw the middle class.” Or, “I believe I will need to order the next bigger size of flip-flops, as all the reviewers said this brand tends to run small.”

Now if you ask me, “Do you believe in God?” it’s a funny question, like asking, “Do you believe in the sun?” I don’t need to “believe” in the sun because I can just go outside and see and feel it, at least during the day, and at night I “believe” it will reappear tomorrow as it has reliably done for 51 years. Likewise, after a lifetime of serious yoga practice, I can consistently perceive Something that I call “God.” My experiences of the sun, and of God, while “real” to me, are completely subjective. In both cases, because many other people assure me that they, too, experience these entities, I can reasonably conclude that they “exist” in some sense outside of my own mind, at least as a shared delusion, if nothing else. But that’s not to say they exist objectively! That conclusion would require scientific data which, in the case of the sun, is at least theoretically possible for me to obtain, whereas in the case of God, no scientific verification is possible even in principle, for definitional reasons, as I will explain later.

I believe some things about the sun, e.g., that it exists in an objective sense, that it is a star like billions of others only much closer, which is to say, a spherical fusion reactor in space 93,000,000 miles away whose radiation would burn us all to a crisp were it not for the earth’s magnetosphere, and that contrary to how it appears, the earth is actually orbiting the sun at 19 miles a second and the sun only appears to be orbiting us because the earth is revolving on its axis at 900 miles per hour. How do I know this? Well, both from the Monty Python song, and from textbooks written by scientists. And this requires a certain amount of faith on my part because I have to trust, or “believe in,” the scientists who provide this information.

Don’t get me wrong; I love science! In fact, I love it so much that I considered getting a double major in philosophy and physics, but I already had a double minor in German and Russian languages, while physics required a math minor and there was a waiting list for the math classes. So instead I just took as many elective science classes as possible and read all the popular physics books I could get my hands on. But despite having a reasonably good education in science, my knowledge is relatively limited, as is my ability to verify information. I believe that you can’t travel at the speed of light because when I plug numbers into the Lorentz transformations, doing so results in dividing by zero, which I believe is impossible because I learned in algebra if you divide by zero, unacceptable things occur like 2 = 1. I believe that the universe could have emerged from nothing, only because I vaguely understand the mathematical concept that if you roll the dice an infinite number of times, anything is possible.

As a child, I found a fossilized seashell in Colorado. I own a telescope that allows me to see 4 of Jupiter’s alleged 63 moons, and a microscope with which I can identify yeast and some other organisms. I can perform some basic experiments with gravity, volume and mass and even a little chemistry. I do not personally have access to a supercollider or an underground vat of cleaning fluid with which to catch neutrinos and other particles. But, the cool thing about science – and why it makes a good “consensus reality” – is that at least in principle, if I were rich and/or I knew the right people, I could send a probe to the sun and/or employ a device to catch neutrinos, Higgs bosons, quarks or whatever. Since that is not realistically possible, I am taking other peoples’ word for it, because I have no particular reason to doubt them and peers have duplicated their experiments and analyzed their data.

If I have any skepticism about science, it is only due to my medical career of 22 years, during which I discovered to my considerable dismay that some of the things I’d believed were solidly “science-based” turned out to be either “market-driven,” dubious, and/or completely fabricated. I have also found that medical “news” as presented in the popular media is sometimes contrary to the information in the medical literature, which is accessible to me only because working in the field I know where and how to look things up, whereas even a very intelligent and educated layperson would have no way of knowing. I’m not going to go there right now, because every time I do, people are eager to burn me at the stake and in any case, it’s a whole ‘nother subject for another time. However, my experience in the medical field naturally makes me wonder whether similar misinformation could be happening in other fields where I have less knowledge, such as geology or hydrology. For example, if scientists tell me that fracking is perfectly safe and that peoples’ tap water catching on fire is a mere coincidence and has nothing to do with fracking, who am I to argue? I would like to think that the “hard sciences” are less susceptible to manipulation and deceit than for-profit medicine, but in the absence of available evidence, I take it on “faith.”

But, I digress. The point I was making is that my beliefs about the sun and other physical entities can at least in theory be objectively verified via scientific experiment, whether performed by myself or some other trustworthy persons, and confirmed by peer review. The same cannot be said of a metaphysical entity such as “God” because science, by definition, does not concern itself with non-physical subjects, in the same way that you can’t get color video on a black and white t.v. and a radio won’t give you visual images at all, because it’s not designed to do so. One of the people [thx ban48!] who contributed a great deal to the discussion on my last post, and who helped to inspire this one, raised the question, “What is a physical consequence of your god?” None, unless you want to hook me up to an EEG or MRI, and/or measure my brain chemistry while I am hanging out with God. But, those same measurable neurological changes can occur as a result of the meditation technique itself, without a God. Otherwise, my God is like String Theory, making no verifiable real world predictions.

Now I often say, “God is Love,” but this won’t help us, either, because Love, like God, is a metaphysical, i.e. subjective, entity. One of my atheist friends insists that Love, unlike God, is objectively real because we can measure the brain chemistry associated with it. Well no, actually we can’t; our understanding of neurochemistry is simply not as sophisticated as laypeople often imagine it to be. While we can track oxytocin and other hormones, it would be difficult to distinguish love from lust, infatuation or baby hunger. But, even if we could trace and analyze and document every single neurochemical interaction corresponding to the feeling of love, that still would not prove that the personal experience of “love” has any objective reality outside of the human mind. If anything, it would argue against it, since “love” can be easily explained to be nothing more than our hormones tricking us into breeding and taking care of our offspring, so as to pass on our DNA. Likewise, the changes in brain chemistry that occur when I am in a meditative state are indicative that I am experiencing Something, but in no way prove that Something has any objective existence outside of my own mind. I would go so far as to say that from the purely scientific standpoint, consciousness or even the “self” as such may be merely an illusion caused by chemical interactions in the brain.

So, I have no material data, and no way even in theory of obtaining any data, that would support a belief in the objective existence of God, a metaphysical entity. And were it not for my consistent personal subjective experience of God over many years, I would have no reason to “believe” in God. I certainly would not believe based on the Bible, a clearly mythological book or collection of allegorical and poetic writings with, at best, some history thrown in here and there. I would not believe based on fundie preachers telling me that I must believe or else be sent to hell by a God that I had no particular reason to believe exists. And given my extensive study of comparative religions, the fact that every religion claims to be the one and only Truth, which none of them can objectively substantiate, would also raise a red flag. On the other hand, I might conclude that God is, at the very least, a nearly universal human phenomenon – which, again, is not the same as objective existence and may well just describe the shared archetypal collective unconscious of which Jung speaks.

The second definition of “believe” in regard to persons, which many if not most “believers” consider God to be a Person (although God can also be impersonal), presupposes the existence of that person and refers to their character. If I say I “believe in” Barry Obama it doesn’t mean I believe that he exists; I take that as given. Rather, it means that I think he is a person of integrity, that he is the right man for the job, and/or that he is doing a great job under the circumstances. That is merely personal opinion. It’s not a statement of fact and has no objective consequences. But, I can “believe” factual things about him, such as, I believe he was born in Hawaii because I attended high school with him at Punahou, and I happen to know trustworthy people who knew his parents from the University of Hawaii and saw baby Barry when he and his mom got out of the hospital.

I should probably also address, because somebody will inevitably bring it up, what about the Creeds that we recite in church, where we chant, “We believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”? This brings us to the contextual use of the word “believe.” It is my understanding from church history that the Creeds were not so much formulated to make a statement about physical or scientific reality but rather, to differentiate our particular brand of religion from competing factions and to take a stand against heresies such as Docetism (the doctrine that Jesus’ body was only an illusion). So within this context, I “believe” certain things. For example, I believe that the sacrament of Holy Communion is the body and blood of Christ, as opposed to a “mere symbol.” But, do I believe that laboratory testing would reveal it to be human DNA of a guy who lived in Palestine 2000 years ago? Of course not! We’re not talking about science here. Do I believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Yes. I also believe, in the context of the LOTR story, that Gandalf rose from the dead after defeating the Balrog in the mines of Moria, and that Eowyn slew the Nazgul at the battle of Pelennor after he said, “You fool, no man can kill me!” and she replied, “I am no man!” and drove the sword through his skull. Note, some LOTR fans believe that it was actually the hobbit Merry who killed the Nazgul by striking him from behind with an elven sword. A case could be made either way, again within the context of the story. But that’s not to say that elves or hobbits objectively exist.

Finally, there is a fundamental reason why I don’t use the word “believe” with regard to the objective existence of God. As Frank Schaeffer discusses in another of his wonderful books, “Patience with God, Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion {or Atheism},” according to the Orthodox apophatic tradition, “neither the existence of God nor nonexistence , as we understand these words in the material world, applies to God.” We have already seen that it is impossible even in principle to demonstrate the existence of a metaphysical or non-physical entity using physical science, our consensus standard of “objective” reality. But there’s a deeper reason that the objective existence of God is moot.

The very use of the word “exist” with reference to God is theologically problematic. The word “exist” comes from the Latin “existere,” “to arise or stand out from.” As Rabbi Tzvi Freeman puts it, “G‑d is not a thing… G‑d is isness itself… ‘Does G‑d exist?’ In Hebrew, that's a tautology, somewhat the equivalent of ‘Does existence exist?’" Richard Bach likewise refers to the Divine in his book “Illusions” as “The Infinite Radiant Is,” and Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has stated, echoing Christian existentialist philosopher Paul Tillich, that God is rather the Ground of all Being from which everything else emerges, the Source of life and love. My teacher Mark Whitwell, Heart of Yoga, likewise calls God, “Source Reality.”

The eastern tradition also sees God as the ground of all being, but with a twist: that same Divinity is the essence of our own human soul! Swami Vivekananda explains, “As certain religions of the world say that a man who does not believe in a Personal God outside of himself is an atheist, so the Vedanta says, a man who does not believe in himself is an atheist… Where is there a more practical God than He whom I see before me — a God omnipresent, in every being, more real than our senses? For you are He, the Omnipresent God Almighty, the Soul of your souls… He is the Oneness, the Unity of all, the Reality of all life and all existence.”

So, when my atheist friends insist, “the burden of proof is on those who say God exists,” while that may be true, it is a moot point because no objective proof is possible even in principle, and “exists” is meaningless in this context. But, that’s fine with me because I don’t need to prove the “existence” of the God I experience as Love. I’m content to subjectively enjoy It and to be an expression of It in the world. And unlike the fundies, I don’t believe that my God who is Love would send you to hell [if there were a hell] for your failure to believe based on using the rational intellect that He gave you; therefore I have no vested interest in convincing anybody of anything.

If you were so inclined, I could easily teach you yogic techniques to experience It; no “belief” is necessary. The techniques work very well for the vast majority of people, including my atheist students, (although I’ve recently been informed that some folks lack the requisite gene). If you do the practice consistently you will more than likely experience Something and you may call it Whatever You Wish. Or, you could leave that Something nameless and just enjoy It as you would a beautiful painting or poem, a sunset at the beach, or a song that touches your heart and inspires your own existence – assuming you and I “exist” at all apart from complex chemical interactions in our fleshly primate brains, which is itself a dubious proposition.

2 comments:

  1. Since I worked for Elementary particle physics at the UW Physics Department for 15 years (as a Research Administrator), and then for Department of Statistics for 8 years, I completely agree with your opinions. My father, I believe, as an orchardist, believed primarily in Nature. I too, worship Nature...the tulips in the Spring, the beautiful leaves in the fall, the roses, the soaring trees; all of it.
    Man (in a patriarchal society) created religions to scare away the idea that we all die and that we become part of the earth again, just particles. And religion has led to more deadly wars (almost) than political ideology. Since women are always oppressed by religion, fuck religion.
    Donald Trump is a crazy racist, sexist, narcissistic fascist - he is a very frightening person, but so is Ted Cruz. I hope the Republicans blow themselves up this year.

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    1. thx so much for reading and commenting on my blog! I love physics. I completely agree with you about the GOP insanity, although to be honest, I think Rafael Cruz is even scarier than Trump, because Cruz is a theonomist whereas Trump is less overtly "religious." Hopefully they will indeed blow themselves up.

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