Sunday, March 14, 2010

Seeing (God) is not Always Believing

Why are people religious? That’s a serious question. What makes people decide to have faith in an all-powerful, unseen entity?

There are numerous reasons, and I believe I know some of them. Most people who are religious acquired their religious views from their parents or their social clique. Think about it; when you were born, you were an atheist. Everybody was. Atheism simply means you don’t believe in a god. Before you were indoctrinated into your religion by your parents, you had no religious belief. Therefore, you were an atheist.

Fundamentalists start the indoctrination process at an early age. So if you were born into a fundamentalist family, you acquired your religion early.

Or did you? Kids often go through the motions of believing in God and Noah’s Ark and all those other cute bible stories, but do they really realize what or why they believe? They also believe in Santa Claus, if they were raised to. But they have evidence of Santa: He leaves them presents on Christmas morning. They have no evidence of God; they just believe because there parents or Sunday school teachers tell them to.

But sometimes, people go through childhood and even a lot of their adulthood either not believing or not giving it much thought either way. If asked, they may claim to be a Christian, simply because that’s what most Americans are. But sometimes they start believing because of a personal epiphany or because they believe something miraculous has happened to them. Some people may have witnessed something they believe to be a supernatural occurrence and that’s proof enough for them.

Still others believe because, to them, it makes more sense to believe that all the complexities of the world seem to require a creator. They think Occam’s razor is on their side: Believing in one creator that accounts for everything seems simple enough.

And to reinforce the belief, whatever the original cause, there is always the fear of death and the fact that religion provides a way out. Good little Christians get to spend all eternity in a wonderful, happy place called heaven. But bad little boys and girls, and adults who haven’t embraced reason, have to go to hell, which is a place where God sends you if you don’t worship him. Apparently, the all-powerful, perfect creator of the universe has self-esteem issues.

But let’s take a closer look at the personal experience reason for believing. Pretty much all other reasons for believing can be argued away with simple, rational logic. But it’s hard to argue with someone’s personal experience with God. Sometimes it happens as a specific event. They claim that God has spoken to them or that they felt the Holy Spirit within them. Maybe they actually saw something.

I don’t doubt that most people who claim to have had a religious or spiritual experience actually believe it. Most of them are not lying. What they are doing is misinterpreting the experience.

Consider that everything we know about the outside world enters our consciousness through one or more of our five senses: vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. If we pet a kitten, our brain perceives the soft fur in a way that causes us to recognize what it is. We hear the purr of the kitten and recognize what it is, because we’ve heard it before. But our brains are not experiencing the kitten directly. Our peripheral nervous system acts as an intermediary. And the neurons within the brain are second-level intermediaries. Not until the electrical signals get to their final destination within the cerebral cortex where memories are stored do we recognize what we are experiencing.

Once in a while, something goes wrong with the messages that constantly fire in the brain and nervous system. Sometimes people see things that are not there or hear sounds that don’t really exist. People with schizophrenia often see or hear hallucinations that are absolutely real to them. In the movie A Beautiful Mind, based on a true story, the protagonist went for decades talking to, seeing, and visiting with a government agent and his little girl that weren’t really there. But they were absolutely real to him.

Our brains can do strange things sometimes. It’s not that we are mentally ill, but what makes more sense, to believe that our religious experience is the result of a temporary delusional episode that is completely consistent with physical reality and the laws of nature, or that it was really caused by a supernatural entity that violates the laws of nature to reveal itself to us personally?

I know; if it has happened to you, nothing I or anyone else can say is apt to make you think you didn’t really experience it. But setting emotion aside for an instant, it is much more logical for someone who has not had such an experience to believe that it was caused by a hallucination that only seemed real.

Normal, everyday people have hallucinations quite often. Most of the time they happen just before drifting off to sleep or just as you are awakening. You are still technically asleep, but you dream that you are awake and that you see or hear something, like a dead loved one or a ghost or a pony. Occasionally, these hallucinations can happen even when you are awake.

I’m convinced that most, if not all, the God experiences people claim to have had are simply our brains playing tricks on us. A temporarily delusional mind makes much more sense than believing in supernatural forces.


Sdave said...


I am with you on the big picture... most religion is man-made... so to speak... maybe manufactured is a better word... we see (or develop) what we want and it makes us feel better?

I still have this gnawing feeling about real science... the possibilities are so endless... to cut it down to two simple opposing ideas is just as hopeless.

I feel as always (my gut... not truth)... the real truth is between any two ideas might be held in this case.

Jerry Wilson said...

Your "gut" feeling is simply a sense of fairness that most people have as a result of culture. In most cases it is advantageous. But being fair does not work in cases where there is a substantial preponderance of evidence on one side.

The evolution-creation debate is an example. It SOUNDS fair to say let's teach creation (or ID) too. But there is zero evidence for it. Evolution has mountains of evidence.

Would it be fair, for example, to teach the view of the Flat Earth Society in geography classes? Yes, it would, but that doesn't make it the right thing to do.

Science always seeks the truth, regardless of where it takes us. Religion starts out with the "truth" and works backward to fill in the gaps it needs to make it sound reasonable. It does not deserve to be treated fairly.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jerry Wilson said...

I will not allow you to use my blog to proselytize. You are free to provide logical, rational feedback to any of my blog postings. But I won't allow a sermon. Your previous comment has been removed.